Confidential Informants, Motions to Reveal Identity, and Discovery: Part II, What Statutes Apply?

In Part I of a series of posts on confidential informants, I revisited the landmark case of U.S. v. Roviaro, which began when a Chicago police officer hid in the trunk of an informant’s car to listen in on a heroin deal. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the officer in the trunk was no substitute for the confidential informant (“CI”) in the driver’s seat and required disclosure of the CI’s identity to the defense. I also introduced the basic dichotomy set out in Roviaro: generally, where the CI is more of a tipster, the CI’s identity need not be revealed, but where the CI is an active participant, the defense is entitled to it. The constitutional underpinnings of this distinction, based on due process and confrontation principles, continue to guide courts today, although the analysis has evolved.

This second post will address the North Carolina statutes at play. These statutes complicate and refine the basic constitutional question of whether fundamental fairness requires the State to turn over the CI’s identity.

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News Roundup

The trial of former U.S. President Donald Trump for alleged falsification of business records is nearing its conclusion. The prosecution’s key witness, Michael Cohen, was on the stand for four days, describing what he and Trump discussed back in 2016 and 2017 when Cohen served as Trump’s lawyer. He outlined a plan to conceal a sexual affair from the public by making hush-money payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. Trump’s intent in making these payments, and whether a falsification occurred in furtherance of another crime, are the central questions of the trial. The defense engaged in a lengthy cross-examination to undermine Cohen’s credibility.

The prosecution then rested, and the defense presented the testimony of one witness, also an attorney. The witness, Robert Costello, had previously given legal counsel to Cohen after Cohen’s house was raided by FBI agents. After the defense rested, the parties debated the appropriate jury instructions. Closing arguments are scheduled for Tuesday, and the jury could begin deliberations Wednesday.

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Confidential Informants, Motions to Reveal Identity, and Discovery: Part I, Roviaro v. U.S.

Today I begin a series of blog posts discussing the law around confidential informants, motions to reveal identity, and discovery. Technological developments have made it more common for law enforcement to document the activity of a confidential informant (“CI”) through video and audio recording. This change raises challenging legal questions, such as whether the identity of the confidential informant must be revealed to the defense and what must be turned over in discovery. Today’s post discusses the landmark case of Roviaro v. U.S. and introduces the basic issues, focusing on the factors that weigh toward or against the disclosure of the CI’s identity to the defense. Future posts will discuss the relevant statutes, key state cases, and federal courts’ analysis of these questions, along with procedural and strategic considerations.

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News Roundup

The first criminal trial of a former U.S. president began this week in Manhattan. Donald Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, based on allegations that he dishonestly classified payments to porn actor Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal as legal expenses, when they were in fact hush-money payments to hide affairs. Falsifying business records is a misdemeanor in New York, but the crime is elevated to a felony when done with intent to conceal a second crime. District Attorney Alvin Bragg has stated that the evidence will show that Trump falsified the records with the intent to conceal campaign finance and tax crimes.

On Monday, the proceedings began with pre-trial evidentiary arguments, and presiding Judge Juan Merchan excluded certain pieces of evidence as too prejudicial. For example, prosecutors will not be permitted to play the audio recording of the “Access Hollywood” tape to the jury, but they will be permitted to introduce the campaign emails discussing the tape.

Jury selection is well underway. 50 of the original 96 prospective jurors were excused immediately after stating they could not be fair and impartial. The lawyers have scrutinized jurors’ prior social media posts to uncover potential biases as they decide whom to strike. As of today, 12 jurors and one alternate have been selected, with five more alternates to be picked.

Read on for more criminal law news.

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Surveillance Video- When It Comes In and When It Doesn’t

Video evidence authentication has received a fair amount of treatment on this blog. The topic remains an area of practical significance given the prevalence of video evidence in criminal trials and how common it is for the prosecution’s case to hinge on the admission of video. We are increasingly a video-focused society. Between home security cam, doorbell cam, body-worn cam, in-car cam, pole cam, and even parking lot cam, juries increasingly expect to see video, whether the incident in question occurred outside a home, near a business, or on the roadside.

In this post, I will focus on surveillance video.

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News Roundup

A bill to “recriminalize” the possession of certain dangerous drugs is moving forward in Oregon. Oregon became the first state to decriminalize the possession of drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl when voters approved of a 2020 ballot initiative, with 58% in favor. If Governor Tina Kotek signs the new legislation (she states she will), possession of these drugs will again be classified as a misdemeanor. The new law would provide for a range of responses, including treatment alternatives to incarceration, diversionary options such as conditional discharges, and up to 180 days in jail. Proponents argue that the surge in fentanyl overdoses requires that penalties be reinstated, while others argue that decriminalization was not the cause of increased fentanyl use.

Read on for more criminal law news.

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When (and If) an Order for Arrest Should Issue after Dismissal to the Grand Jury

It is no secret that probable cause hearings are rare throughout North Carolina, despite clear provisions for conducting them in the general statutes. See G.S. 15A-606, 611-614. The reasons for their rarity have been set forth on this blog as far back as 2009. Prosecutors often point to the volume of felony cases moving through district court and the impracticality of conducting a mini-trial with “all the trappings of a full adversary hearing” in explaining why they routinely bypass the procedure. See State v. Lester, 294 N.C. 220, 224 (1978). However, skipping the PC hearing can create a gap, or bump, in the “regular” course of a criminal case, leading to various issues.

At the probable cause stage in district court, the defendant may waive the hearing, assert the right to a hearing and get one, or assert the right to a hearing and not get one. In this last scenario, the State, rather than engaging in the hearing, may choose to dismiss the case in district court and then recharge the matter in superior court by seeking an indictment. This practice is referred to as “voluntary dismissal to the grand jury” (VDGJ) or “dismissal for possible indictment.” The State’s bypassing of the probable cause hearing has never been deemed reversible error in North Carolina, as the defendant must demonstrate prejudice, which is rarely possible. See State v. Wiggins, 344 N.C. 18 (1993).

After voluntary dismissal to the grand jury, a crucial question arises as to whether an order for arrest (OFA) should issue upon indictment. The question is the subject of this blog post.

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News Roundup

This week Governor Cooper signed an executive order to improve reentry services throughout the state. The order aims to enhance coordination between agencies and increase access to post-release employment opportunities and programs such as work release. With the announcement of the order, North Carolina became the third state (joining Alabama and Missouri) to sign on to Reentry 2030, a national initiative with ambitious goals. The goals include increasing the number of high school and post-secondary credentials earned by incarcerated people by 75%, increasing the number of post-secondary degrees that are available in prisons by 25%, reducing the number of incarcerated people being released homeless by 50%, and allowing every person who is eligible to apply for Medicaid before release. The executive order also calls for more local reentry councils.

Read on for more criminal law news.

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When Can the State Use Testimony from the Probable Cause Hearing at Trial?

My colleague, Phil Dixon, blogged about the Court of Appeals’ decision in State v. Joyner, 284 N.C. App. 681 (2022), here. In Joyner, the court ruled that the State did not run afoul of the Confrontation Clause when it introduced the victim’s testimony from a civil 50C hearing at the defendant’s criminal trial. Last year, the court decided State v. Smith, 287 N.C. App. 614 (2023) (unpublished), a case that provides an interesting counterpoint to Joyner. In Smith, the State recorded the victim’s testimony from the probable cause hearing in district court and moved to admit the testimony at trial in superior court after the victim became unavailable. The trial court admitted the testimony, but the Court of Appeals reversed. It ruled that the opportunity to cross-examine the victim at the probable cause hearing was not “adequate” to comport with constitutional requirements, vacated the convictions for first-degree kidnapping and human trafficking, and ordered a new trial.

Although the opinion is unpublished, the State did not seek further review, and the Smith decision has important implications for practitioners. This post examines those issues and offers advice for defenders when the State attempts to introduce recorded testimony from a probable cause hearing at trial.

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