Update - United States v. Singleton

On Nov 17,1998, lawyers for Sonya Singleton asked a federal appeals court in Denver to make a decision that legal experts say could throw the criminal justice system into immediate upheaval. Hundreds of thousands of cases could be dismissed, and law enforcement claims it could be stripped of its most powerful investigative tool.

The issue is whether federal prosecutors are committing bribery when they use witnesses who have been paid money or given reduced prison sentences in return for testifying in criminal trials.

While it may be weeks or even months before the results of this en banc hearing are made public, Ms. Singleton's chances of winning are good, according to analysts. Since July, four separate federal courts have ruled that it is illegal for paid informants to testify during a trial.

The US Justice Department is so worried about losing the case, they lobbied the 105th Congress for legislation that would protect federal prosecutors from bribery charges and allow the government to continue its use of witnesses who have been rewarded. None of this legislation passed and it will be January before the new Congress convenes.

The majority of federal criminal cases involve informants and witnesses that are paid for their testimony­­drug cases are no exception. Reduced sentences, immunity or cash rewards are all ways that the prosecution builds a case against federal defendants. Many states have followed suit and it is now common for an informant to be paid thousands of dollars for "cooperation."

"If you read the 10th Circuit opinion, it's well-reasoned and easily supported by federal law," said a judge on the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. "But the results would be catastrophic. What do you do as a judge in a situation like that­­follow the law or try to devise a way around it?"

The practice has undermined public confidence in the court system. Lawyers and judges say the Singleton case offers an opportunity for the courts and Congress to make necessary improvements.

Too often, says criminal defense attorney Gerald Goldstein, authorities rely exclusively on paid informants and co-defendants-turned-informants and have no corroborating evidence to support the informant's testimony.

"Every day, there are people being sent to prison for many years solely based on the word of career criminals who are manipulating the criminal justice system as informants," said Terry Hart, a former federal prosecutor in Dallas. "The best thing about this case is that it should make all of us rethink the use of informants and deal-making for the sake of fairness and justice."