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The following is the first-ever online poll question posted on a Web site called www.whosarat.com: “A heroin junky who continues to break the law, has open criminal cases, has been paid thousands in cash by [the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration] and promised deals on his open cases. Would you consider him credible?” While the possible answers of “Yes,” “No” or “Can’t Say” may seem trivial to some, the site’s creator is looking for as much input from the public as he can get. The site, launched earlier this month, is designed to encourage members of the public to post and reveal information on informants and law enforcement agents involved in upcoming criminal trials. Attorneys’ reaction to the Web site are predictable: Defense attorneys say it may be of use, while prosecutors are fearful of the impact it may have on the willingness of witnesses to testify. There are also signs that seeking information on the Internet about informants used by prosecutors may be a growing trend. Part of a 13-point legal disclaimer on the Web site is based on a recent Alabama case, where a similar Web site posting the names of informants and drug enforcement agents in an upcoming drug case was in dispute. Though the prosecution twice filed an injunction to shut down the site, claiming their witnesses felt harassed, the judge ultimately ruled in favor of the defendant’s right to mount a defense. U.S. v. Carmichael, No. 2:03CR259-T (M.D. Ala.) [NLJ, Aug. 2]. The site’s creator, Sean Bucci, came up with the idea during an 11-month period in which he was incarcerated in Boston before posting bail on marijuana distribution charges. Bucci alleges the police used an informant from his hometown whom he hadn’t seen in six years to implicate him. He is currently awaiting trial. After hearing stories from fellow inmates, Bucci said he saw the alleged unfairness of the informant system and decided to create his Web site to help others find information about witnesses set to testify in upcoming trials. “People don’t realize what’s going on until they become a victim,” he said. “You hear stories here and there, but you just don’t realize the extent of what they do.” The Web site allows people to post profiles and pictures of informants and agents requesting information about them from the public, which may be used to discredit them, Bucci said. Defense attorney David Schwartz of the Schwartz Law Firm in Brooklyn, N.Y., said as a criminal defense attorney he would use the site to try to gather as much information as he can for his client. However, he said he could understand the desire of prosecutors to limit these kinds of Web sites in order to protect their witnesses. Schwartz, a former assistant district attorney in Brooklyn from 1993 to 1997, dealt with a number of undercover narcotics officers. “We did everything in our power to keep their identity sacred,” he said. “They are risking their lives every day for the New York City Police Department, and as a general standpoint [the courts] should do everything they can to keep these officers’ identities.” Montgomery County, Ohio, Prosecuting Attorney Mathias H. Heck, a past vice president and board member of the National District Attorneys Association, said most witnesses prosecutors use are not “snitches,” but people who took part in the actual crime. Heck added that, despite public perception, many of these witnesses have already been convicted of crimes or have trials pending. Heck said he would not jeopardize one case for another by offering deals. A ‘chilling effect’ Heck does have concerns about the potential impact of Bucci’s site. “Anytime you list or categorize witnesses as snitches, it can cause a chilling effect on the ability to get to truth or interfere with the administering of justice,” he said. “Categorizing witnesses or police officers as a snitch can put them in line for potential danger.” Ronald Rotunda, a professor at George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Va., warns that witnesses will have to get accustomed to seeing their names on various Web sites. “Once you make the decision to be an informant, you make a lot of enemies,” he said. “The least of their concerns should be the passers-by [that see the site]. There are people with a financial interest that may want to do you harm.” Brandon A. Perron, a criminal defense investigator and president of the Criminal Defense Investigation Training Council, said he expects Web sites like these to be used more regularly by defense attorneys and investigators. But because of issues like attorney-client privilege, defense lawyers have to get approval from their clients before publicizing the case. The Florida-based council, which has more than 150 certified members, trains defense attorneys and investigators in the public and private sector to check the credibility of witnesses by tracking down leads. Perron said posting profiles on Web sites is no different than renting a billboard or distributing fliers, and Web sites have the ability to reach more people.

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