Confidential informants now appear to have protection from being harassed and threatened by federal law enforcement, due to a restraining order that seems to be the first of its kind in the nation. Cooper Levenson partner William J. Hughes Jr., a former federal prosecutor, secured the restraining order to protect the Government’s witnesses, confidential informants, in the defense of his client, a Cape May County commercial fisherman accused of a misdemeanor violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Federal agents sought information from two informants who were stopped for minor violations relating to a rare harvesting permit. The informants agreed to cooperate with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Special Agents against Hughes’ client, who worked aboard a nearby commercial fishing vessel.
One of he government’s confidential informants provided NOAA Special Agents with pictures of potential evidence obtained when he was improperly aboard the defendant’s commercial fishing vessel for what a U.S. Justice Department lawyer describes as “a law enforcement purpose”. The confidential informants later made recorded statements to the defense’s investigator – a retired FBI Special Agent – that they cooperated with NOAA Special Agents because the NOAA Special Agents allegedly harassed and threatened them. The informants noted that NOAA agents threatened to revoke their rare harvesting permit if they did not assist in the investigation against Hughes’ client. The informants said they also were threatened with jail time if they did not continue to cooperate.
On October 17, 2016, federal Magistrate Judge Cathy L. Waldor issued the restraining order that prevents federal agents and the defense counsel investigator from having further contact with the informants. Specifically, the order prevents federal law enforcement agents from contacting their own witnesses – the confidential informants – based upon the confidential informants’ claims that they had been harassed and threatened into cooperating with the government by the federal law enforcement officers. The order restrains NOAA Special Agents and federally deputized New Jersey Conservation Officers who previously interacted with the government’s confidential informants from contacting them. The order also prevents the defense investigator from contacting the witnesses. Magistrate Judge Waldor permitted both the government and the defense to contact the confidential witnesses utilizing different investigators than those involved in the investigation.
The Government subsequently conceded that their confidential informants boarded the commercial fishing vessel for the purpose of assisting the NOAA Special Agents. Magistrate Judge Waldor stated that the Restraining Order was necessary “to preserve the integrity of the proceedings.”
The first-of-its-kind ruling could have national significance, according to Hughes, for similar cases in other jurisdictions involving alleged misconduct by federal law enforcement involving confidential informants.
Cooper Levenson is a full service law firm since 1957, with 75 attorneys and New Jersey offices in Atlantic City and Cherry Hill. The firm has regional offices in Bear, Del., and Las Vegas, Nev. For more information, visit www.cooperlevenson.com.