Believe it or not, you can be arrested and charged with a crime in Miami for eating a piece of paper? How, you might ask? If that piece of paper contains evidence that may be relevant to an ongoing trial, then consuming it can be unlawful.
Recently, the executive director of Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers, Richard Masten, was found to be in contempt of court when he refused to turn over a piece of paper containing information about an anonymous tipster while he was on the stand testifying about a case. Instead of turning over the paper, he ate it to protect the identity of the tipster.
As a result of eating the paper in the middle of court while he was on the stand, Mr. Masten, was found in contempt of court by the trial judge. The judge ordered that Mr. Masten either provide the information that was on the slip of paper or face up to two weeks of jail and a $500 fine.
Mr. Masten was brought into court to serve as a witness in a cocaine possession case in which an anonymous tipster contacted the Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers, who in turn, informed police. The police investigated and then arrested the defendant based on what they initially learned from the tipster. The defendant’s attorney requested that Mr. Masten produce information about the tip that eventually led to his client’s arrest to better learn the basis upon which the police had investigated, and then arrested, his client.
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What is Contempt of Court?
Contempt of court is a finding that a judge makes directly against someone either in the court or outside the court. A “direct” contempt of court takes place during a trial in front of the judge, such as interrupting the judge during a trial, while an “indirect” contempt of court is something that occurs outside the court, such as improperly contacting a juror during an active trial.
Judges can create their own punishments for findings of contempt. They often will (as in the case of Mr. Masten) require the individual who was found in contempt to do something to benefit the court (such as provide the tip information the defendant’s counsel requested) or face a penalty. Judges can create penalties that are fines and/or jail time.
Did the Tipster Have the Right to Remain Anonymous?
The short answer is no. Under the U.S. Constitution, defendants have the right to “confront” their accusers. That means that when someone is charged with a crime, he has the right to question the accusers in court as part of the trial. Defendants also have the right to rebut the evidence that the prosecution presents in its case.
So, in this case, the defendant wanted to know more about the tip that Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers received in order to try to rebut the charges against her. Mr. Masten had the right to refuse to provide that information, but in doing so he interfered with the trial and was therefore found in contempt of court. Tipsters can only remain anonymous as long as the people that receive their information refuse to share the identity of the tipster, or anonymous witness, to a court.