Inmates at the Federal Detention Center in Miami call it case jumping: snitching on a fellow detainee to get a reduction in their own prison sentences.

Case jumpers are not flipping on co-defendants. They are not connected to cases when they become informants, and criminal defense attorneys say these third-party players are feasting at FDC,

“The buying and selling of information to cases has become an epidemic,” said Coral Gables attorney Frank Quintero Jr. of Quintero Broche.

Fellow criminal defense attorney David O. Markus, a partner at Markus & Markus in Miami, said new prisoners are immediate targets of case jumpers when they arrive.

“It’s like zombies who smell blood or fresh meat,” he said. “When an inmate arrives at FDC or they hear someone is going to trial, they mindlessly just jump on the case like the walking dead.”

Markus said his jailed clients tell him not to send any legal paperwork to them at the FDC because fellow inmates will steal it.

Case jumping has become almost a cottage industry that may be the only way to reduce Draconian sentences for drug crimes, attorneys say.

“It’s a breeding ground at FDC,” Markus said. “If you weren’t a snitch when you went in, you are quickly turned into one.”

Defense attorneys trace the practice to congressional passage of Rule 35(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure in the mid 1980s making allowances for “reducing a sentence for substantial assistance” on a government motion.

Quintero said the term case jumping was coined around the same time when federal inmates were detained near Zoo Miami. If detainees wanted to testify against another, they would be transferred to the downtown Miami jail to be questioned by prosecutors.

“They called it jumping on the bus,” he said.

Michelle Alvarez, spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer, said no prosecutor or law enforcement agency takes information received by inmates at face value.

“Whenever we receive information as part of our process, we try to corroborate it independently,” she said.

Defense attorneys maintain many prosecutors, especially young and inexperienced ones, are simply tricked by career criminals who seem to know so much about a case.

“It is very difficult for a prosecutor to determine right off the bat if the guy is lying,” Quintero said. “There is no foolproof method for prosecutors to determine by themselves if an inmate is telling the truth. But you also can’t turn a blind eye and look the other way.”

Conflict of interest

Miami constitutional lawyer Tom Julin, a partner at Hunton & Williams in Miami, said prosecutors have a built-in conflict of interest because they want convictions.

By asking to reduce a prisoner’s sentence for cooperation, he said prosecutors are basically paying them to testify.

“It’s unethical. It undermines the whole system,” Julin said. “I really don’t see how prosecutors can weigh the information. I do not trust prosecutors to judge the validity of the testimony of jailhouse snitches.”

FDC inmate James Mathurin, in a telephone interview with the Daily Business Review, said he was targeted by case jumpers.

He said his locker was broken into while he was preparing for his case. Facing a January retrial for several armed robberies, Mathurin was confronted with prosecutors who told him three fellow inmates claimed he confessed to them. He said inmates in his unit at the downtown jail knew the three were trolling for information.

“I know the rule: never talk to anybody about your case,” Mathurin said. “And if I knew they were cooperating, why would I speak to them?”

He said case-jumping at FDC increased when a number of defendants accused of drug smuggling recently were extradited from Latin American to Miami for trial.

“Any one of the Mexican cartel members or the Colombians, anyone with a significant amount of money, they will shop around,” Mathurin said.

Quintero said a witness set to testify against a drug client was emailing his family in Colombia to have them look up information that he could take to prosecutors. Quintero wouldn’t name his client, citing a gag order, but court documents indicate his client is Joao Luiz Malago.

Accountability

The practice of case jumping took center stage last May in the drug trafficking trial of Jose Salazar Buitrago and John Finkelstein Winer.

Assistant Federal Public Defender Kashyap P. Patel, in a motion to dismiss, said prosecutors reluctantly acknowledged inmates Fabian Cruz was paid money by Daniel Bustos to allow Bustos to testify against Salazar.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Miami received a letter from an attorney who represented an inmate making the allegation. Patel said the letter stated, “There is a witness selling evidence and information that will be used against defendants going to trial in the instant case.”

Veteran Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Hoffman was the prosecutor in the cases of Salazar, Malago and Mathurin.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke in Miami pointedly questioned Hoffman during the Salazar-Finkelstein trial about when she learned Colombian police were on the payroll of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The defendants quickly pleaded out to charges delivering sentences that basically amounted to time served.

Changes in the use of informants are coming, predicted Alexandra Natapoff, author of the book Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.

Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, addressed all forms of snitching in a recent article for Prison Legal News. She said informant reforms are being talked about in several states, including Florida.

Changes would reward informants who testify for the defense and add corroboration requirements and guidelines for police and prosecutors, she said.

“Public awareness about informant use is increasing, and in 10 years the law and culture of informant use is likely to look very different,” Natapoff wrote. “Such changes could help our entire criminal justice system become more accurate, more fair and more accountable.”