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Getting the facts

Published May 29, 2013 5:35 pm

Coerced testimony worth little
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Police work often involves the use of informants: people who are associated with those who may be committing crimes. These people sometimes put their lives in danger in order to provide cops with information they otherwise wouldn't be able to get that can help them solve cases.

But all is not fair in law enforcement, as it may be in love and war.

It's not appropriate, for example, for officers to demand that drug users or others suspected of minor crimes who are also in the country illegally to become informants or face possible deportation. It's not surprising, given their other apparent misconduct, that some detectives in the now-defunct West Valley City Neighborhood Narcotics Unit were found to have used this type of coercion to enlist the help of undocumented immigrants. But it's also possible that other police agencies in Utah have similarly dealt with illegal immigrants.

That's a practice that should be stopped, for both ethical and practical reasons. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said each police department sets its own policies on the use of confidential informants, but he must sign off on any deal that would exchange leniency or reduced charges for information.

The basic problem, besides the shaky moral ground of coercing undocumented immigrants to possibly put themselves in danger by funneling secret information about crimes and criminals to the cops, is that such information is unreliable.

Gill and his staff have explained that the testimony of a witness who tells a judge or jury that he was promised a pass on his illegal status if he would testify is automatically tainted.

The Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force and West Valley police say they make decisions about using undocumented immigrants as informants "on a case-by-case basis." But that means officers have to make inquires about status during investigations and arrests. Immigration laws should be enforced by federal officers, not local police, so there is no reason to ask.

Salt Lake City Police Department has the best policy: Don't inquire about anyone's immigration status. The department doesn't prohibit using undocumented immigrants as informants, but that's because the officers should not know the status of a suspect or witness.

As Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank puts it, "... when you start asking questions about status, you are talking to racial bias and profiling. There's no two ways about it." That sums it up nicely.