Ethics Hero: Dick Masten—When Ethics Trumps Law

A heroic and ethical snack...

A heroic and ethical snack…

One way I can always start an argument on Ethics Alarms is to state my position that willfully breaking the law is per se unethical as a breach of citizenship. Like all rules, however, this one has exceptions. Dick Masten, the Director of Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers, recently demonstrated one of them.

The former police chief was ordered by Judge Victoria Brennan to reveal the name of a tipster in a cocaine possession case, State vs. Lissette Alvarez. Alvarez was arrested in 2013 and charged with cocaine possession. Brennan called for Masten to come into court and confer with her in chambers regarding the case. Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers sparked the eventual arrest after getting information from a tipster who was assured anonymity. Alvarez’s attorney insists that the tipster’s information is part of the evidence against his client, saying, “Ms. Alvarez, in this case, has every right to confront her accusers. But more particularly in this case, it’s not the accuser, but the evidence that the State will use against her.”

Ordered by the judge to reveal the name of the tipster, Masten, insisted that he couldn’t divulge information to be reviewed in closed court that might be discoverable as evidence. “There is a possibility that looking at certain documents, a defendant could work that case backwards and put the tipster at peril, and I’m not gonna let that happen,” he said. In a dramatic touch, Masten swallowed  a slip of paper that held the tipster’s name. “What is personal to me, is the promise,” Masten said before his ethical snack. “Some of these tipsters could end up dead. Not on my watch.”

The judge found Masten  in contempt of court, and he jailed for 14 days. Judge Brennan’s order reads in part, “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. But I think sometimes compassion can cloud judgment.”

All true. The judge is not wrong on the law; she had to give the order and had to jail Masten for defying it. Masten, however, did the right thing. He and his organization receive tips based on a pledge of anonymity, a promise that would be a false representation if the Crime Stoppers treated a court order or a judge’s command as loopholes.  The Crime Stoppers website declares, “You will remain anonymous. We want your information, not your name.” That is without qualifications, and integrity demands exactly what Masten did.

“If you give somebody your word, you keep your word,” is how Marsten sums up the principle. If you aren’t willing to accept the consequences of keeping such a pledge even when a judge orders otherwise, it is unethical to make the pledge at all.


Facts: WSVN

Graphic: Daily Mail

6 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Dick Masten—When Ethics Trumps Law

  1. If the Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers want to keep the tipsters anonymous, why do they not give the tipsters code names and not ask for their names? Maybe from now they will do so.
    But then, I dislike the idea of anonymous tipsters, how easy is it for someone to plant evidence on anyone the tipster has a grievance with, then give in an anonymous tip.

  2. This is why I argue this point with you. When you think the law is unethical you make posts like this. The rest of the time you just grind away with “But the law is the law so by definition it is unethical to break the law.” If this guy breaking the law is ethically right and defensible (which I agree, it is), then others who break a law they feel is wrong should be given consideration. Not that they are always in the right, but it’s bogus to say “well, they broke the law, so that’s ethically wrong” and then commend this guy for the same thought process.

    • I’ve been very consistent on that point. If you have a good reason to break the law on utilitarian grounds and accept the punishment, I can respect that. All ethical rules have anomalies, and that’s exactly why I wrote this post. This is an ethical conflict, and the resolution, in this case, is to suck it up and go to jail.

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