February 3, 2011

Crime Stoppers wants full anonymity for tipsters; senator wants more rights for identity theft victims

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By Abby Rogers
Abby@MarylandReporter.com

Maryland’s Crime Stoppers organizations are fighting for legislation for the right to be able to guarantee tipsters anonymity when they call to report crimes or details about crimes. However, they might not be able to guarantee total anonymity.

Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton

Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles, introduced a bill that would make evidence provided by tipsters, including any communication between the tipster and Crime Stopper volunteer, inadmissible in court. The bill also prohibits law enforcement from revealing the tipster’s identity.

“How do we protect them [the tipsters]?” Middleton asked skeptics of his bill.

The Charles County Sheriff’s Department started using a Crime Stoppers program in local schools as a way to combat crime. Since beginning the program in the 2007-2008 school year, police have had 1,557 tips, Major Joe Montminy said. They have been able to recover weapons and drugs and combat other crimes, closing 400 cases.

“We need those calls and tips,” Montminy stressed to the committee. However, it’s difficult to receive such helpful information when people fear retaliation, he said.

The main point of contention for the committee dealt not with the anonymity of the tipster, but with the fact that any communication between the tipster and the Crime Stoppers volunteer would be inadmissible in court.

Betty Turner, a member of the Southeastern Crime Stoppers organization, said that aspect of the bill was in response to a case in in Quincy, Ill., where a person accused of a crime was able to dig through the records and discover the identity of the tipster.

“We need to make sure that those tipsters are comfortable that when they pick up the phone line and they do anything that has to apply to Crime Solvers, that they will never ever be exposed,” Turner said.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, countered that the absolute anonymity requirement of the bill could make extra work for prosecutors. If a tipster said one person was involved in the crime while prosecutors were investigating another person, it could end up hurting the case and leading the prosecutors in the wrong direction. This could justify disclosing the identity to the prosecutors, but bill supporters vehemently disagreed.

Turner said she personally would not feel comfortable reporting a crime unless she could be sure of anonymity. She also stressed that she has faith in law enforcement to investigate tips and distinguish accurate tips from false information.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, who had been working on an amendment to the bill, stepped in with a legal perspective on the anonymity clause of the bill. He said there was “nothing extraordinary” about the supporters’ opinions on anonymity.

Under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, if tipsters are not witnesses in a case, their identity can be shielded, said Raskin, a professor of constitutional law at American University.

However, if there is the possibility the tipster could provide exculpatory evidence, his or her identity might be revealed in court. A judge would have to secretly review the tipster’s statements and decide if they could be considered exculpatory evidence that could help the defendant. Because of this, Raskin said Crime Stoppers could promise tipsters it would do everything it could to protect their anonymity but it couldn’t make an absolute guarantee.