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Pennsylvania Court Requires Police to Corroborate Testimony of Confidential Informants

May 11, 2017

By van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim

Law enforcement officers often rely on tips from confidential informants in order to obtain search warrants. Unfortunately, even when a case is brought to trial, the identity of these informants is usually strictly protected, which can make it difficult, if not impossible for a defense attorney to challenge the informant’s reliability. However, a recently published Superior Court opinion could have significant repercussions on how much protection informants can receive going forward. To learn more about how the results of this case could affect your own, it is important to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney who can explain your legal options.

Establishing Confidential Informant Reliability

In many cases, courts rely on the testimony of police officers to determine whether confidential informants are reliable and whether their safety would be jeopardized if their identity were disclosed in court. In the recently decided case of Commonwealth v. Charles Manuel, the court explained that there are limitations to how much weight will be given to a police officer’s testimony in these situations.

The police in this case, acting on a tip from a confidential informant who told them that he had seen a marijuana grow operation in someone’s house, arrested the defendant. In justifying their arrest, the police officers argued that the informant had provided information that led to an arrest on a prior occasion. The officers also asserted that before making the arrest, they had corroborated the names of the house’s occupants by checking real estate records, which confirmed that the house belonged to the person that the informant had identified. The lower court subsequently refused to grant a motion to suppress the evidence discovered during the search of the defendant’s house.

The Court’s Decision

On appeal, the court stated that the fact that an informant had provided information on a single prior occasion is not enough to establish that he or she was reliable enough to justify obtaining a search warrant purely based on the informant’s testimony. Furthermore, even though the officer argued that the informant’s prior tip had resulted in an arrest, this in and of itself was not convincing enough to satisfy the probable cause standard without evidence of a conviction. For these reasons, the court determined that the warrant lacked probable cause and reversed the defendant’s conviction. The court did note that in some cases, the information provided by a confidential informant can be enough to support a search warrant, but only if:

  • Police independently corroborate the tip;
  • The informant has provided accurate information on multiple occasions; or
  • The informant also participated in the criminal activity in question.

Courts will look at the totality of the circumstances before determining that a confidential informant’s testimony was reliable enough to justify a search warrant.

Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney Today

If you were recently arrested for a crime and the evidence against you rests solely on the word of a confidential informant, please call van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim in Philadelphia at (215) 486-0123 to schedule a case evaluation with a dedicated attorney.



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