ROVIARO v. UNITED STATES
On August 12, 1954, agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (“FBN”) and the Chicago Police Department met twice with Albert Roviaro near the intersection of 75th Street and Prairie Avenue in Chicago. According to Agent Norris Durham of the FBN, after the second meeting, Detective Byson of the Chicago police climbed into the trunk of a Cadillac sedan owned and driven by “John Doe,” an informant for the government. The trunk was propped open slightly to preserve Byson’s line of sight. John Doe drove the car to 74th Street and St. Lawrence Avenue, where Alberto Roviaro got out of a Pontiac sedan. Roviaro entered the Cadillac sedan and took a seat next to the driver, John Doe.
Durham followed the Cadillac, which took a circuitous rote to Champlain Avenue and 74th Street. He observed Roviaro leave the Cadillac and walk to a nearby tree, where he picked up a small package. Byson confirmed this from his vantage point in the Cadillac’s trunk. Roviaro then walked to the car’s open right front door and motioned as if he was leaving the package inside. A chemist working for the United States later identified the package’s contents as heroin.
The government charged Roviaro with trafficking heroin, in violation of the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act. He was convicted, and the district court denied his motion for a new trial. The U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, affirmed the ruling. Judge Walter Lindley, writing for a unanimous court, held that because John Doe was not a participant in Roviaro’s actual possession of heroin, Roviaro is not entitled to full disclosure of his identity.
In a prosecution for trafficking heroin, may the government conceal informant John Doe’s identity if he helped to set up the sale of heroin and was present during the sale?
No. Justice Harold Burton, writing for a majority in a 6-1 decision, held that Roviaro’s interest in preparing his defense outweighed the public interest in protecting John Doe’s identity. The Court focused on the fundamental requirements of fairness, reasoning that where the identity of an informant or the contents of an informant’s communications are relevant and helpful to a defense, the government’s privilege must give way. Justice Burton also noted that the charge in question required more than mere possession of heroin; Roviaro had the burden of justifying this possession, which underlined his need for access to material witnesses. John Doe was his only material witness.
Justice Thomas Clark dissented. He wrote that the majority’s decision jeopardizes the government’s privilege in cases involving informants, especially in drug cases where informants are often necessary to the proper administration and prosecution of narcotic laws. He also suggested that Roviaro was attempting to win on a technicality --as he likely already knew the informant’s identity-- rather than on the merits of the case.
Justices Hugo Black and Charles Whittaker took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.