Roviaro v. United States, 353 U.S. 53 (1957)

The Supreme Court recognized in Roviaro held that the government must sometimes disclose the identity of its confidential informants in order to ensure a fair trial for the defendant. Roviaro thus placed an important limitation on the long-recognized ‘‘informer’s privilege.’’

Roviaro was charged with illegally transporting narcotics after he allegedly sold a packet of heroin to ‘‘John Doe,’’ an undercover informant. At trial, the government presented the testimony of several police officers who had observed the alleged sale but refused to disclose the identity of John Doe on the ground that Doe was still acting as an undercover informant in other cases.

After being convicted, Roviaro appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed his conviction by a vote of six to one. The Court observed that it had long recognized that the informer’s privilege furthers effective law enforcement by encouraging citizens to report crimes without fear of being identified. However, the Court concluded, the privilege must yield to a criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial when the informer does not merely observe a crime but, as John Doe did, actively participates in it. Since that active participation made Doe a material witness to the alleged crime, Roviaro was entitled to learn Doe’s identity so that he could decide whether he wished to call Doe as a defense witness. Although the decision in Roviaro was formally based on the Court’s supervisory power, most lower courts and commentators have regarded the decision as compelled by the due process clause.


References and Further Reading

  • Westen, Peter, The Compulsory Process Clause, Michigan Law Review 73 (1974): 71.

See also Defense, Right to Present; Due Process


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