Roviaro v. United States - 353 U.S. 53 (1957)
U.S. Supreme Court
Roviaro v. United States, 353 U.S. 53 (1957)
Roviaro v. United States
Argued December 11, 1956
Decided March 25, 1957
353 U.S. 53
Petitioner was convicted in a Federal District Court for violating 21 U.S.C. §174, by knowingly possessing and transporting heroin imported unlawfully. In the face of repeated demands by petitioner for disclosure, the trial court sustained the Government's refusal to disclose the identity of an undercover informer who had taken a material part in bringing about petitioner's possession of the drugs, had been present with petitioner at the occurrence of the alleged crime, and might have been a material witness as to whether petitioner knowingly transported the drugs as charged.
Held: In the circumstances of this case, failure of the court to require disclosure of the identity of the informer was reversible error. Pp. 353 U. S. 54-66.
(a) Where disclosure of an informer's identity, or of the contents of his communication, is relevant and helpful to the defense of an accused, or is essential to a fair trial, the Government's privilege to withhold disclosure of the informer's identity must give way. Pp. 353 U. S. 60-62.
(b) However, no fixed rule is justifiable. The public interest in protecting the flow of information to the Government must be balanced against the individual's right to prepare his defense. Whether nondisclosure is erroneous depends on the particular circumstances of each case, taking into consideration the crime charged, the possible defenses, the possible significance of the informer's testimony, and other relevant factors. P. 353 U. S. 62.
(c) In this case, the informer was not expressly mentioned in the relevant charge of the indictment; but the charge, viewed in connection with the evidence introduced at his trial, is so closely related to the informer as to make his identity and testimony highly material. Pp. 353 U. S. 62-63.
(d) The provision of the statute authorizing a conviction when the Government has proved that the accused possessed narcotics -- unless he explains or justifies such possession -- emphasizes petitioner's vital need for access to any material witness. P. 353 U. S. 63.
(e) The circumstances of this case demonstrate that the informer's possible testimony was highly relevant, and might have been helpful to the defense. Pp. 353 U. S. 63-65.
(f) On the record in this case, it cannot be assumed that the informer was known to petitioner and available to him as a witness, nor that the informer had died before the trial. P. 353 U. S. 60, n 8.
(g) The trial court erred also in denying, prior to the trial, petitioner's motion for a bill of particulars, insofar as it requested the informer's identity and address, particularly because Count 1 of the indictment charged an unlawful sale of heroin to the informer. P. 353 U. S. 65, n. 15
229 F. 2d 812, reversed and remanded.