MIAMI -- The head of Miami-Dade County's Crime Stoppers program avoided jail time Thursday after a judge found him in contempt of court for refusing to divulge details about an anonymous tip, some of it on a piece of paper he ate rather than turn over at a previous hearing.
Instead, Circuit Judge Victoria Brennan put Richard Masten, the program's executive director, on probation and ordered that he complete a memo about the law governing disclosure of anonymous tips as well as the importance of obeying court orders.
Afterward, Masten said he had been ready to go to jail for up to six months rather than hand over information sought by a defense attorney in a cocaine possession case. More than a dozen police officers from several South Florida departments packed the courtroom as a show of support.
"I'll do it again," he said. "We're going to protect Crime Stoppers tips. We're not going to give it up."
Masten said that in more than 20 years, the Crime Stoppers program has helped solve some 34,000 crimes in the Miami area. His case gained national attention for the paper-eating incident, which was captured on video. There are similar Crime Stoppers programs nationwide.
Brennan had given Masten a Thursday deadline to provide information about the tip, although the identity of the tipster was not being sought. The judge said anonymous tips are routinely turned over to defense lawyers in criminal cases, although Masten insisted that was not the case with Crime Stoppers tips.
Still, the judge said Masten - who was a police chief for 35 years before taking his current job - appeared to be "ignorant" about the rules of evidence. She was more concerned, however, about his defiance of her order.
"There's nothing honorable, ever, in violating a court order," the judge said. "It would undermine the integrity of the entire system."
Masten's probation will end once he completes the memo and it is approved by Brennan, said his attorney Ed O'Donnell.
The defense attorney in the cocaine case, Jean Michel D'Escoubet, said he believes his client had a constitutional right to obtain the Crime Stoppers tip information. He said he may be able to obtain what he seeks from the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office but raised concerns about the ability of Crime Stoppers to shield its tips from evidence rules.
"Crime Stoppers is not above the law. They don't have some special privilege," D'Escoubet said. "My client needs to have all the evidence against her, and this is being withheld from her."
As he wiped fingerprint ink from his fingers, Masten said he is the first Crime Stoppers official in the country to be found in criminal contempt for protecting a tip.
"We're going to have to weather these attempts by defense attorneys to dig out what we have," he said.