Massachusetts Police Investigations: Literally, Money Talks

If I asked you what “CI” stands for, in the context of police work or criminal law, would you know? Almost certainly not. I wouldn’t expect you to.

No, it’s not the name of a new TV crime show. It stands for “Criminal Informant,” or, as they say in the prison system, a “snitch.” It’s the acronym for a known criminal, who the police have coaxed into working with them to land (i.e., arrest and charge) larger criminal targets. Now, most people think that the “coaxing” involved in these cases, usually involves an agreement to “go easy” on a criminal suspect, if that suspect provides police with valuable information on the bigger fish that the detectives have their eyes on: Information such as names, addresses, modes of operation, hidden locations, etc. So, for example, if a suspect is charged with Massachusetts drug trafficking charges, the police department involved might agree to reduce the charges to a “straight” charge of drug possession, for which the sentencing penalties are far less severe (vs. distribution or trafficking.)

But here’s the kicker that most people don’t know: Many Massachusetts police departments and other law enforcement agencies (such as the Massachusetts State Police,) actually pay suspects to not only provide “information” about other criminal suspects, but to testify against those suspects in court documents. Yes, you heard that right. You can get up off the floor now. Some police departments actually pay cash to suspects to provide “information” about other criminal suspects the police have targeted – and inevitably, the “cooperation agreement” the informant signs with the police, contemplates or involves testifying in court documents against those other suspects. In exchange, the informant is not only paid money, but their identity is shielded in court documents, identified only as “Confidential Informant/CI No. 1, (or 2, etc.)”

I’ll bet you didn’t know that, did you?

A recent example of how questionable this whole practice can be, occurred in Lawrence, Mass. On October 23, someone by the name of David Rivera was shot and killed outside a night club. Left and right, Rivera was a veteran criminal, and did several stints in prison following multiple convictions on various charges, including Massachusetts drug trafficking crimes. But after he was killed, one particular part of his past came into larger focus. Specifically, the fact that in 2009, police paid Rivera $1,000 to testify as a witness in the trial of a defendant who was accused of murdering someone by the name of Rudy Cruz. Cruz had been shot to death in 2007, and Rivera witnessed the shooting.

Ultimately, the esteemed Mr. Rivera’s testimony was stricken from the record because he was paid for his testimony by police, but the whole matter has put a spotlight on this not-so-known police investigative practice. A Confidential Informant’s motives in accepting payments in exchange for testimony can, obviously, be extremely suspect: For example, in this case, did Rivera take money from the police to tell the truth and “profit” from the truth? Or was he simply lying for cash, or was his intent more subversive: To take the cash, then admit in court that he was paid for his testimony in order to invalidate that testimony? In that event, he could pocket the money, and laugh at the police and prosecutors as he watched a judge rule his testimony inadmissible in the case.

The Essex County District Attorney’s Office reported that they “conducted an internal investigation” about the payment, and, for as-yet unspecified reasons, found nothing objectionable about the payment. No surprise there. The Essex D.A. then kicked the matter back to the Lawrence Police Department for that Department’s own internal “review.” Nothing surprising there, either.

As a Dedham, Mass. drug crimes lawyer, and as a former Special Assistant District Attorney, I don’t decry police investigators for “creative” investigative techniques. Sometimes, out-of-the-box techniques are needed in order to successfully solve and prevent serious crimes. But there is always a “line” in any given activity, operation, or effort – in any sphere of life, professional or personal. That line is more often black or white, vs. grey, and police should step over the line in their professional attempts to fight crime – and neither should prosecutors. I respect professionals in both of these fields. But paying off confidential informants to testify against suspects in criminal cases should be off limits.