Many Florida criminal cases rely on the testimony and participation of confidential informants. Many times these informants have criminal records that are less than clean. As a result, an informant's motive for helping law enforcement and prosecutors is often the subject of intense debate. This issue with confidential informants has direct implications to how a jury considers his or her credibility during a trial. In Becker v. State, the Fourth District Court of Appeal sets one important ground rule: the prosecution cannot vouch for the credibility of a confidential informant.
Todd Becker was charged with solicitation to commit home invasion robbery and other crimes stemming from an alleged plot to rob a home. However, Mr. Becker’s plan was thwarted before it occurred.
The prosecution's case was based largely on testimony from a confidential informant, a childhood friend of Becker's who had already been convicted of 14 felonies at the time. During a meeting in April 2007, Becker allegedly told the informant that he was trying to get his hands on a gun so that he could rob a house somewhere on the state's west coast. The informant agreed to help Becker get a gun and even intended to participate in the robbery. The informant later claimed that he changed his mind because he did not want to go back to prison.
The informant then told his former probation officer about Becker’s robbery scheme. After meeting with FBI agents, the informant agreed to have several calls with Becker monitored and recorded. He also introduced Becker to an undercover FBI agent acting as a gun dealer. Becker was arrested when he met the informant and undercover agent in a parking lot to buy a gun.
On direct examination, the informant denied receiving any benefit from the FBI in exchange for his assistance. On cross examination, however, he admitted that he had been arrested twice since the incident with Becker. Although he was charged with crimes carrying heavy prison time, the informant was only given probation. On redirect, the informant maintained that his participation in the Becker prosecution had nothing to do with his sentencing and subsequent probation for the recent felonies.
During closing arguments, Becker's attorney stressed to the jury that the informant "doesn't do one day of time" for his last two felonies. While the informant claimed he wasn't getting anything in return for his assistance, defense counsel maintained "it's very clear why he's doing it." The prosecution, meanwhile, told the jury "I can stand here today, ladies and gentlemen, as an officer of this Court, and tell you that [the informant] is not getting anything out of this." Defense counsel's objection to this statement was overruled and the prosecutor added that the informant would receive nothing more than $6 for parking.
Becker was acquitted of conspiracy and firearm possession charges, but found guilty of solicitation to commit home invasion robbery and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The Fourth District reversed the conviction on appeal. "Simply stated, the prosecutor was not permitted to give his personal assurances that the informant received nothing in exchange for his testimony," the court explained. While both sides were free to discuss the informant's motives as a credibility issue during direct and cross examination, the court said Becker was denied his right to a fair trial when the prosecutor vouched for the informant's credibility.
"The prosecutor invoked his status as an 'officer of the court' to assure the jury that the informant was being truthful," the court said. "This undermined the integrity of the judicial process and irreparably contaminated the verdict and resulting sentence."
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