The man who oversees the popular Crime Stoppers tip line took its privacy pledge to the extreme — defying a judge’s order to turn over information and swallowing a piece of paper with details he believed could lead to the tipster.
For disobeying the order — even as he chewed up potential evidence — Richard Masten was found in contempt of court Friday by Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Victoria R. Brennan. He has until next Thursday to turn over the information, or turn himself in and serve a 14-day sentence. He was fined $500.
“The court would be remiss to turn a blind eye to a flagrant refusal to honor a court order, and give more value to an individual’s opinion on what is right, than to the dictates of the laws enacted by the people of Florida,” Brennan wrote in her three-page order.
Masten said he was unwilling to release any information because even though the name isn’t actually on the tip sheet, “the narrative that goes along with it can lead to the identity.”
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The executive director of the nonprofit Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers was sanctioned by Brennan for not releasing information about a drug possession case in Coral Gables last year.
The charge stems from a 2013 case in which a Hialeah woman named Lissette Alvarez, 45, was arrested on a cocaine possession charge.
Her attorney, Jean Michel D’Escoubet, said Coral Gables police got a tip that his client was dealing cocaine and apprehended her at Hillstone restaurant on Miracle Mile. He said a search of her purse found residue and Alvarez was arrested and charged with possession. The police report said they found a small plastic bag of suspected cocaine.
“The information against the accused within a tip is very important to the accused,” D’Escoubet said. “What I seek and what I’ve been waiting for is information within the tip, not the identity of the tipster.”
Masten’s attorney, Ed O’Donnell, said that his client, a former police chief in Miami Shores who has led Crime Stoppers since 2008, believes it would set a terrible precedent for future tipsters who have made Crime Stoppers so successful.
“He was just unwilling to compromise his principles,” O’Donnell said.
So unwilling that he intensified what had already been legal theater by eating the paper alleged to have had information that could have led to the identity of the tipster — in front of television cameras, but while the judge was out of the courtroom.
Masten said the judge asked to see the information in her chambers, but he refused when she said she couldn’t promise it wouldn’t be turned over to the defense. He said he swallowed the information because he expected to be arrested and believed all his possessions would be turned over to the court.
“I make a promise to tipsters out there. It isn’t going to happen on my watch. If you want to put me in jail, fine,” Masten said.
Crime Stoppers is not afforded protection under Florida’s Shield Law, which protects “professional journalists” from having to identify sources. But the nonprofit doesn’t need it because people who supply tips to Crime Stoppers don’t give their names; they are assigned a number instead.
Still, confidentiality is the key to the popularity of the hotline and website.
Crime Stoppers has proven to be an effective tool used by Miami-Dade police and other agencies. It’s often referred to in crime stories or by officers seeking help. The nonprofit’s website calls a tipster “the most important partner in our program,” and says he or she “is guaranteed anonymity” and cash rewards up to $3,000 for a tip that leads to a conviction.
This “allows members of the community to offer information to law enforcement without the fear of reprisals,” the website says.
Anthawn Ragan Jr., accused of killing 10-year-old Aaron Vu in a high-profile robbery last November in North Miami-Dade, was captured after a tipster contacted Crime Stoppers.
Brennan’s order said Crime Stoppers was first ordered to turn over the information on Dec. 5, 2013. The order says the court never asked for personal information on who supplied the tip that led to Alvarez’s arrest.
Two weeks ago, the defense requested that Masten show cause why he shouldn’t be found in contempt for failing to provide the information.
“Based on the foregoing facts, the court finds that the respondent is in direct criminal contempt, and that the contemptuous behavior has had an adverse impact on judicial function,” Brennan wrote.