Alaska appeals court reverses Crime Stoppers conviction

Posted: Thursday, April 18, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A phone call to the Crime Stoppers tip line in Petersburg led to Donald Richards' arrest for growing marijuana in his home.

The arrest two years ago so pleased the Petersburg Police Department that the case was used to advertise the Crime Stoppers program, and its rewards of up to $1,000 for fruitful tips, in the local newspaper.

But last week, the Alaska Court of Appeals threw out Richards' felony conviction because police didn't do enough. The court said investigators should have done more to corroborate the informant's information.

Richards, a 41-year-old fisherman with no prior convictions, pleaded no contest on Sept. 27, 2000, to misconduct involving a controlled substance in the fourth degree. He was sentenced to four months in jail, ordered to pay a $3,600 fine and perform 120 hours of community service.

Richards entered the plea with the understanding he could appeal.

Richards' lawyer filed a motion to suppress the search warrant evidence claiming the warrant was issued without probable cause. A Superior Court judge in June 2000 denied the motion after finding that the informant was a citizen with firsthand knowledge of drug activity at the home.

Richards' lawyer, William B. Carey, said the case illustrates what can happen when police take hearsay information from informants as fact.

''I felt the cops took a short cut here. If they wanted to verify the information they could have,'' he said. ''They didn't do any investigation of their own.''

Petersburg Police Chief Dale Stone denied police cut corners.

''I don't look at this as sloppy police work,'' Stone said. ''Drugs are a serious problem here in Petersburg. The officer involved in the case felt he had probable cause ... the Appeals Court disagreed.''

The informant's tip led to the seizure of 29 marijuana plants.

The case began late in the day on Dec. 27, 1999, when Stone and Officer Greg Siera asked the local magistrate to issue a search warrant. They said a person had called Crime Stoppers earlier that day and reported a strong odor of marijuana coming from Richards' home. The informant also said there was more than a normal amount of foot traffic at the home.

The magistrate asked whether the caller had a criminal past.

''So as far as you know (the informer) doesn't have a record?'' she asked. ''As far as I know. I can make a phone call and check,'' Siera responded.

The magistrate asked about any pending deals the informant had with police. ''I would be surprised if a criminal history at all exists on this person,'' Siera said.

The court found that there were too many unanswered questions about the relationship between the informant and police in the Southeast Alaska city of 3,200 residents.

While the identity of the informant was not revealed to the magistrate, police knew the person.

''When the informer's identity is unknown to the police, there is no risk that the informer could receive any official concession or pecuniary reward for their tip,'' the opinion said. ''However, here, the caller's identity was known to the police, and there was nothing presented to the magistrate that ruled out the potential that the caller would receive compensation for the tip.''

Police did too little to corroborate the tip, the court said. Police argued that the tip was valid because they knew Richards lived at the home. But the court said that was simply a matter of public record.

Police also said a juvenile had admitted that he stole garbage bags filled with marijuana from a trailer owned by Richards. But the court said the information was a year and a half old and did not involve the residence for which the police were requesting the search warrant.

In a court brief, Carey concluded that the police had, ''every opportunity to follow up on information provided by an informant, but chose not to do so. Instead, the police drew their own conclusions, all but imposed them on the magistrate and, in so doing, trampled upon a citizen's Fourth Amendment right to be secure in his own home.''

Carey said police could have gone to the home and talked with Richards, checked to see if electrical usage at the home was high, or observed the amount of foot traffic for themselves.

Carey argued that the tip information was so vague the foot traffic could have been Girl Scouts selling cookies.

Crime Stoppers International conducts training seminars each year for law enforcement officers to learn how to use tips to develop cases, said retired Judge Richard W. Carter, the group's executive director and legal expert in Arlington, Texas.

''We teach that there must be independent police corroboration of the raw tip, and that such corroboration must be articulated in the affidavit submitted to the magistrate or judge who is asked to issue the warrant,'' Carter said in an e-mail Wednesday to The Associated Press.

Crime Stoppers was begun in the United States in 1976 and now operates in 16 countries. It has paid more than $56 million in rewards and cleared more than 880,000 cases. Nearly $4 billion in narcotics and $1.3 billion in property has been recovered, according to Crime Stoppers International's Web site.


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