One of the most egregious and long-standing systems of prosecutorial misconduct that we have ever followed is the still unfolding story of the illegal snitch network operated out of the Orange County, California District Attorney’s and Sheriff’s offices. Just this week we learned that one of the assistant DAs involved has resigned and is leaving California.
But the scale and sheer audacity of the law-breaking by prosecutors in Orange County shouldn’t in any way obscure the fact that the failure to disclose to defense counsel information about snitches, and how their testimony was come by, is not a sensational exception, but an endemic feature of our criminal justice system.
Take, for instance, the excellent recent story in the Willamette Week about an informant paid by Portland Police to help convict dozens of drug defendants.
George Taylor, 52, is a life-time criminal with a white-power tattoo across his shoulders, who in 2011 got busted for selling heroin in a McDonald’s. In order to “work off” his arrest, he pled no contest to the drug charge, and signed an informant contract with the Portland Police, who assigned him two handlers, and agreed to pay him $40 for each drug buy he made under their supervision.
There is nothing illegal about this arrangement, which is made with thousands of defendants every year across the country. But the Portland Police, like other police forces and the FBI, has a policy of firing any informant who commits another crime while employed by law enforcement.
To say that this policy was not followed in George Taylor’s case is an understatement. Not only was Taylor the subject of six police reports by the Portland Police themselves during his time as an informant, getting written up for everything from attempted theft to assault, he was at the same time a mid-level member of a Russian syndicate running a cell phone scam out of Detroit.
Indeed, according to Willamette Week, Taylor told the Portland Police about his criminal activity with the Russian syndicate. His handlers merely cautioned him that they couldn’t protect him from out-of-state charges.
Not only did the police not fire him, Taylor claims, but encouraged him to continue his crimes and become an informant for federal authorities against the Russian organization. In the meantime, they kept him employed as a snitch testifying against drug defendants. These defendants’ lawyers were never informed of Taylor’s ongoing criminal activity, in violation of the state’s constitutional duty to disclose any evidence in their possession that might impeach the reliability of a witness.
As detailed by Willamette Week, even after Taylor was arrested in Kansas City in connection with the phone scam, which involved buying iPhones on installment plans, never making payments, and shipping the phones to Vietnam, still the Portland Police and Multnomah County prosecutors continued to pay him to make drug buys and serve as a witness in criminal cases.
The county prosecutors claim they were never informed by the police of Taylor’s activities. Even if this were true, that lack of notice would not absolve prosecutors of their constitutional duty to obtain whatever impeachment evidence was in the state’s possession, including the police’s possession, and disclose it to the defense. By failing to turn over what would clearly be Brady material, they would be violating the constitution.
Moreover, the story gives some reason to doubt the prosecutors’ claims of ignorance in the first place:
Last November, emails show, Graham Fisher, who was defending a man whom Taylor accused of selling cocaine, asked the Multnomah County DA for Taylor’s criminal history and any other information about him that could affect the case.
Instead, deputy district attorney Christopher Shull sent Fisher the criminal history not of Taylor, but of an unnamed person whose criminal record consisted mainly of convictions for cocaine possession.
Fisher subpoenaed the Portland city attorney, who represents the Police Bureau, to get Taylor’s criminal history, documents listing his work as an informant, and any police reports mentioning him. When Fisher got the files in March, he was shocked.
When confronted with the facts, the DA not only dismissed the case against Fisher’s client, but eight other cases involving Taylor’s testimony.
Deputy district attorney John Copic told Willamette Week that his office would now be reviewing all cases that Taylor participated in.
This is just one informant in one police department. And yet without his testimony dozens of men would not have been sent to prison. The math here is terrifyingly simple. Across the nation, thousands of people’s constitutional rights to fully confront the witnesses against them are being violated by a corrupt system of criminal informants.
Which is all the more reason to understand the unfolding events in Orange County, about which we are bound to be hearing a lot more in the weeks to come, not as an aberration, but as an unveiling of one of the dirtiest open secrets of criminal justice: the routine failure by prosecutors to fully inform the court and defense counsel about the crooked bargains they have struck to secure their convictions.