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  1. News

Hillsborough cases delayed over evidence sharing dispute

TAMPA — Caught in a 2012 drug sting along with 21 others, Juan Londono has been waiting since then for his case to go to trial.

But that's unlikely to happen anytime soon. Despite a judge's order, prosecutors have resisted answering questions about the only witnesses in the case — the confidential informers who allegedly bought heroin from Londono. And although the state revealed one informer's name, it hasn't divulged anything about the men's history of working with law enforcement or confirmed a defense attorney's suspicion that one of them died three years ago.

Recently, prosecutors dropped some of the charges against Londono rather than give up his possibly deceased accuser's identity.

Protecting information that could put informants at risk or help a defendant's case is not a new tactic, but Hillsborough County defense attorneys say it is becoming an alarming pattern, despite laws that require broad disclosure. In recent months, disputes over evidence sharing have become commonplace in cases that rely on confidential informers or undercover officers. Defense attorneys are routinely filing motions to force prosecutors to hand over evidence, and prosecutors are routinely objecting, adding to the lifespan of the cases.

The arguments have reached a point where no one can agree on when the practices changed and the fighting began.

Most of the disagreements center on recordings of confidential sources trying to buy drugs from defendants or setting up future drug deals. In the past, prosecutors sent defense attorneys copies of the recordings, trusting that they would not be widely shared. Looking back, neither side can point to a time when this trust was broken.

But over the summer, defense attorneys began to notice that the policy had changed. In order to listen to or view recordings, they now have to make an appointment to visit the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, where they can sit for hours, under the watch of a state employee. They are barred from copying the recordings, as they were previously allowed to do, and from bringing in their cellphones.

"More often than not, it was the actual prosecutor who was in the room," said Nicholas Matassini, a criminal defense attorney who has had this happen in several of his cases. "You're sitting there with your client and you want to say, 'Hey, is that you in this video?' But you can't do that in the prosecutor's office in the presence of a government employee."

The new policy might be inconvenient, but defense attorneys have begun to argue, with some success, that it's a violation of state law. They have the right, they argue, to "inspect, copy, test, and photograph" most evidence, with the exception of child pornography. Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt said the attorneys working under her are complying with the state's policy, but that might be temporary.

"There's going to be appeals on this," she said.

Hillsborough chief assistant State Attorney Mike Sinacore defended the policy. The state has always had an obligation to protect its confidential sources, but it's become more urgent now that disseminating videos online is easy and there are websites devoted to outing snitches. When the Tampa Police Department asked the State Attorney's Office to increase restrictions on who could view the recordings, and on what terms, prosecutors readily agreed.

"We want the defense to have full access and protect all their due process rights," Sinacore said. "But we don't want them to have the ability to disseminate the evidence, and we don't want to have their clients to have the ability to either."

To support their stance, prosecutors point to a 2009 law passed after a young woman was killed while on an undercover drug buy for the Tallahassee police. Called "Rachel's Law," it added new rules governing the relationship between confidential informers and law enforcement. Defense attorneys say prosecutors have misinterpreted the law to their own advantage.

"This movement in Hillsborough County is nowhere else in this entire state," Holt said. "That should give you pause."

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.

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