Let’s say you see a violent crime being committed. As a “good citizen” you call Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers and report the tip. You only feel comfortable providing the information because they assure you that all tips are anonymous. You then pick up the newspaper and learn something about a Miami judge ordering tipster information to be released. Could your identity be next?
This week, Judge Victoria Brennan ordered Richard Masten, the executive director of Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers to turn over information provided to the tip line concerning a cocaine possession case. The judge ruled that the law mandated that he turn over the information that was being requested by the defense attorney representing the alleged cocaine possessor.
When Masten appeared before Judge Brennan, he refused to turn over he information. Additionally, he ate the paper containing the information while sitting in court. In explaining his actions to the media, Masten revealed that he significantly values his assurance of anonymity to tipsters who provide invaluable information that helps solve serious crimes in Miami. He vows to never compromise that promise.
Judge Brennan ordered him to provide the tip, without revealing the source. The defense lawyer who requested the information claims his request was not intended to identify the individual who gave the tip.
Masten didn’t feel comfortable showing the judge the tip so that she could consider whether it was appropriate to release it. He said that the process couldn’t be trusted and that agreeing to show it to the judge would be a “slippery slope.” He clearly does not want to agree to do anything that in any way could lead to the compromise of the tipster’s identity in the cocaine case and/or any future criminal cases.
In holding Masten in contempt, the judge ruled, “The court would be remiss to turn a blind eye to a flagrant refusal to honor a court order, and give more value to an individual’s opinion on what is right, rather than to the dictates of the laws enacted by the people of Florida.”
Masten must appear in court again this week, when he could be sentenced by Judge Brennan to up to two weeks in jail. Masten’s response is, “I’ll bring a toothbrush and some pajamas in case I do.”
My analysis on this begins with the statement, “This is a tough one.” Let’s assume for a moment that Judge Brennan’s take on the law is accurate. If so, the judge was obligated to order him to turn over the information to her, or potentially face reversal on appeal. Additionally, she wasn’t ordering that the information be turned over to the defense, which would have made it a public record. At this point, she merely wants to look at it to see how she could have satisfied the requesting defense attorney while maintaining the anonymity of tipsters. On the other hand, Masten makes an argument that I admire very much. Because he can’t be 100% guaranteed that his disclosure to only the judge wouldn’t then result in its release to the public, he was forced to take this extraordinary act of defiance. I like the fact that he values his word so much that he’s willing to surrender his liberty for it. The Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers Program, which has been helping to solve serious crimes since its inception in 1983, is an important component to catching violent “bad guys.”
So, how will this play out in court this week? I’m not certain. At play, amongst other things, is ego, the law, the media, and principles. With all those variables, it’s tough to accurate predict how this will end. I am certain that Masten won’t back down, nor should he. At the same time, I understand why the judge shouldn’t back down. She’s obligated to follow the law. For many reasons, I certainly hope that the parties can all meet in the judge’s chambers and calmly come up with another alternative.