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Beware of Newbie Police Informants, They're Reliable Too

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By Kelly Cheung on May 21, 2013 5:30 PM

It was business as usual for Adam Winarske back on June 29, 2011. He was meeting a man named Fergel to sell him a handgun at the parking lot of a shopping mall. Little did he know that Fergel was a police informant; a reliable one at that.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a new informant can be a reliable enough source for police to believe there is probable cause of a criminal activity occurring.

Winarske was arrested for possession of a stolen handgun and ammunition. Fergel was considered a reliable police informant, so the police believed they had probable cause to arrest Winarske that day. Winarske was later sentenced to 15 years in federal prison according to the Justice Department's press release on the case.

Winarske, a Bismarck resident, appealed the district court decision denying his motion to suppress the gun and ammunition seized from his girlfriend's car, but the Eighth Circuit has denied his motion. Although Fergel was not 100 percent accurate in his information to police, the court held the police did have sufficient probable cause. The court reminds us that a mere probability of criminal activity is all that is required for police to have probable cause.

His argument was that the search and seizure was improper. He believes that the police based their probable cause determination on an untested and unreliable informant.

Fergel gave the police information about Winarske suggesting that he was selling a stolen handgun, was a registered sex offender, and was currently supervised by a probation officer. After some investigation, police officers were able to confirm that there was a .38 caliber handgun recently stolen out of a car a few blocks from where Winarske resided.

Wergel, helping a police stake out, set up a meeting with Winarske to buy a handgun. As soon as Winarske was identified by police officers familiar with him, the police moved in on him and his girlfriend. They asked Winarske if there was a gun in the car, which he admitted to having. The police quickly found the gun and ammunition behind the passenger seat of his girlfriend's car where he had described it.

There were some errors in the Wergel's information such as names, but they were minor misspellings. Fergel was a newer informant of just one month, but he had already led the police to accurate information prior to his dealings with Winarske. The District Court held and the Eighth Circuit now agrees that Fergel's information on Winarske was an appropriate basis for the police to have probable cause that Winarske illegally possessed a handgun to search his girlfriend's car.

Although Fergel had only been giving the police tips for just one month, that month had a reliable track record. The Eighth Circuit cites the United States v. Brown case in finding that even if there is no proven track record of reliability, the informant can still be credible with a least partial corroboration of the information.

Police were able to corroborate Fergel's information on names, and Winarske's criminal history and supervision status. On top of that, Fergel's prediction of the time and place of their planned meeting also showed how reliable Fergel's information really was. The court believes that the information was, overall, accurate enough for police to suspect criminal activity was to occur when Winarske showed up for his meeting.

This ruling just reinforces the notion that an informant does not have to know a whole lot of detail to be reliable for police. So long as it is reasonable for a police officer to believe there is probable cause of some illegal activity, it's good enough for the Eighth Circuit.

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