Durham group says police illegally paying informants in drug cases

jalexander@newsobserver.comMarch 12, 2014 

  • The story so far

    City leaders tasked an advisory committee last year with investigating alleged racial profiling by the Durham police, after complaints and a UNC-Chapel Hill study showing disparities in traffic stops, searches and arrests.

    The Human Relations Commission said Tuesday that officers need more training in racial equity and crisis intervention, and that the department needs to pay more attention to its employees’ own mental well-being. The recommendations are among 50 measures the panel plans to present to the City Council on April 10.

    The police department has denied profiling. In a response to the allegations, the department said it did not contest the disparities showing blacks and Hispanics were stopped, searched and arrested more often than whites. But it said disparities did not equal discrimination.

— A coalition presented evidence Wednesday it says shows Durham police paid informants extra money for convictions in criminal cases without telling defense attorneys or the district attorney’s office.

The FADE (Fostering Alternative Drug Enforcement) coalition says the documents support its claims of racial profiling by the Durham Police Department’s drug enforcement officers; all the suspects in the cases were black or Hispanic.

Ian Mance, an attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said the documents indicating $300 paid to informants as a “bonus” for convictions and/or testimony show the department participated in unconstitutional conduct. The payments took place between 2009 and 2012.

“The Durham Police Department has a lot of explaining to do,” Mance said. “The documents show unambiguously that drug enforcement officers made undisclosed deals with street informants to pay cash bonuses that were contingent on the effectiveness of their cooperation in securing a conviction. If someone active in your case had a financial interest in seeing you go to jail, wouldn’t you want to know about it?”

Defense attorney David Hall said a conviction bonus could influence testimony, which could incriminate the defendant. He said it violates the right to a fair trial if the state does not disclose all evidence to the defense.

“It goes to the heart of veracity or truthfulness of the witness,” Hall said. “Without full disclosure, the defendant may enter into a plea or give up that right to cross examine that witness. The problem with undisclosed payments and pleas is that the payment arrangement should be part of the discovery provided to defense attorneys when advising their clients about their case. This information could be the determining factor between a plea and a trial.

“The withholding of this information is criminal,” he said.

The police department denied those allegations in a statement Thursday.

“The Durham Police Department denies any unethical or illegal activity as it relates to the paying of bonuses to confidential informants,” the statement said. “The police department has never paid for convictions, only cooperation through case completion.

“However,” the statement continued, “we are asking our police attorney to review our practices and we will be in discussion with the district attorney’s office to ensure that there are no procedural or legal issues in how we handle informants and their payment.”

FADE members said the district attorney’s office was unaware of the money paid to confidential informants.

“If we had that information or known it existed we would have provided it to the defendant in discovery,” Roger Echols, Durham assistant district attorney, told Mance, according to a FADE news release.

Efforts to reach the district attorney’s office for direct comment Thursday were unsuccessful.

In an email to Jon Peter, chief of police for Investigative Services Bureau, Capt. Todd Rose, of the Special Operations Division, said a confidential informant could qualify for a bonus if a defendant was charged with selling large quantities of illegal drugs obtained by the department.

The informant gets paid the bonus regardless of the case outcome, though payment sometimes is not made until the end of trial, in case the informant’s testimony is needed in court.

In four of the eight expenditure forms FADE released Wednesday, the officer listed the $300 payment as “Bonus for conviction/testimony.”

But Rose said the investigator used “conviction” to let his supervisor know the final disposition of the cases and that bonus was the wrong word. He also said all of the defendants entered a plea agreement.

“In hindsight, the word ‘conviction’ should not have been used on the form,” Rose wrote to Peter. “The CI (confidential informant) was paid the bonus for a trafficking-level case, not the conviction.”

Alexander: 919-932-2008; Twitter: @jonmalexander1

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