Crime Stoppers chief Richard Masten accepted a judge’s contempt of court ruling Thursday in a case where he gobbled a wad of paper to conceal evidence — but outside the courtroom he vowed to defy the court again to preserve the name of any tipster.
“If I I have to do it again next week I will, next month, I will,” Masten said Thursday in a second-floor hallway of the Miami-Dade County criminal courthouse.
Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Victoria Brennan ordered Masten to study the laws surrounding anonymous tips and return to the court with an essay on what he learned. Then, she said, Masten will likely serve some type of probation before the case is dismissed.
Masten, a former police chief in Miami Shores, was fingerprinted and fined $30 for his misdeed, but will not serve jail time.
“I believe your motives are good,” Brennan said. “But I believe you lack certain understanding. There’s nothing honorable ever, about ignoring a court order.”
Masten, Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers’ executive director, was charged with contempt of court last week for refusing to hand the judge information his agency’s tipline received that led to the arrest last year of Lissette Alvarez of Hialeah.
After receiving a tip that she was dealing cocaine, Coral Gables police found Alvarez at a Hillstone restaurant on Miracle Mile and searched her purse. Inside it they claim to have found a small plastic bag filled with the suspected illegal substance. Alvarez was charged with possession.
Masten feared releasing information contained in the tip could lead to the identity of the tipster — trumping the very foundation Crime Stoppers relies on, anonymity, and the main reason for its success.
Since December, Alvarez’s attorney Jean Michel D’Ecoubet, has been pressing the court to turn over the evidence that led to her arrest. Last week, after three months of debate, Brennan said Masten’s time was up and ordered him to give her the information in her chamber out of the court’s view.
Masten said he refused when Brennan couldn’t promise she would not turn the evidence over to the defense.
What happened next stunned the rapidly growing courtroom audience: While cameras rolled, Masten gobbled a piece of paper he said contained information that could have led to the tipster. When Brennan declared contempt, the Crime Stoppers boss said he ate the evidence because he was concerned he would be forced to turn it over to the court if arrested.
The move struck a chord with the public, mobilized Crime Stoppers groups across the country, and made national headlines. Crime Stoppers USA, the national organization that represents the program, was in court Thursday with cameras rolling and voiced its support.
“Local Crime Stoppers programs should do everything they legally can to protect the people who provide that information. Most, if not all states, have some form of protection for Crime Stoppers informants,” the organization wrote in a news release.
During the proceedings, Brennan also admonished Masten for having his office email the information contained in the tip to state prosecutors before last week’s hearing, and questioned whether his decision was based on “willfulness” or “ignorance.”
She castigated Masten for telling his office to email the information, making it publicly available under state public records laws.
“You actually undermined everything you did that day,” the judge said.
Outside the courtroom Thursday, Masten said the hair on his neck stood up when the judge called him ignorant.
“Though I didn’t go to law school, I have a clear understanding of the law. I’m guilty, now I have a criminal past,” Masten said. “But while the law may state certain records are available, I contend tips are not.”