February 9, 2024

During a morning segment on CNN, law enforcement analyst John Miller made a bold statement about migrants committing crime in New York and traveling to Florida to spend the proceeds, saying this was happening because Florida prosecutes criminals and New York doesn’t.

Miller’s comment prompted a wave of support in conservative media outlets, who have highlighted crime and immigration as weaknesses for Democrats, including President Joe Biden as he runs for reelection this year.

But critics say Miller’s remark was based on shaky information, and that it offers a lesson on how cable news can encourage unchecked speculation.

The Feb. 2 segment was inspired by a criminal investigation involving migrants who were arrested for assaulting two New York City police officers Jan. 27. Anchor Erica Hill said the latest development was that some of the suspects were believed to have left the city on a bus headed to California, possibly to flee to Mexico.

Hill aired footage of New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, saying, “Get them all and send them back. You don’t touch our police officers. You don’t touch anybody.”

Hill then asked Miller, one of four co-authors of a CNN article about the case, whether the assaults reflected a growing sense that Americans, including Democrats like Hochul and Biden, were tiring of migrant crime and urging more aggressive enforcement.

Miller began his response by acknowledging that many immigrants are “out looking for work. They’re delivering our food. They’re at the gas stations and the car wash.”

Then he turned to immigrants who are criminals. He said:

Within that group, these hard-working throngs of people in search of hope and a better life, there is this one-percenter criminal element that looks at a different opportunity here. These individuals, I went over their rap sheets yesterday, multiple charges, grand larceny, robbery, attempted robbery, grand larceny, grand larceny.

This particular crew operated on mopeds and scooters. They were doing organized retail theft. They were doing snatches on the street, iPhones, iPads, clothing, so on and so forth. One of them that they are still seeking has 10 charges on one day because he’s part of a pattern that’s been going on.

And I’m looking at the dates that their arrests started, which is probably close to when they got here. They’ve only been here a couple of months. So, what the detectives are telling me is they have crews here that operate in New York, do all their stealing, then go to Florida to spend the money and then come back. And I’m like, well, why don’t they just stay and steal in Florida? And they said, because there, you go to jail.

Miller’s remarks were amplified by conservatives, who have long argued that liberal prosecutors allow criminal activity to thrive by declining to prosecute some less-serious offenses and releasing suspects without requiring bail. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has campaigned on his tough-on-crime credentials.

After Miller’s remarks, Hill paused slightly and quietly said, “Oh,” before launching into the next segment. Her nonplussed reaction helped fuel coverage in conservative outlets such as Fox News, the Daily Mail, IJR, the Blaze, and Breitbart, many of whom painted her as naive and out of touch.

DeSantis himself cited Miller’s comments at a Feb. 5 event in which he discussed homelessness. The governor chuckled as he recounted the exchange on CNN and reveled in how it framed Florida as a tough-on-crime state. The audience applauded and whooped, and DeSantis took the opportunity to end the event on a high note.

Criminals have carted around goods and money to avoid detection since the beginning of time. But experts told Poynter that it’s unclear how common the pattern Miller described actually is, and whether it’s being driven by prosecutorial practices in two different states.

In the segment, Miller said his comment stemmed from the observations of detectives, but how many detectives was unclear, and he did not offer descriptions of who they were. Whether the New York-to-Florida pipeline was a common occurrence or a one-off wasn’t clear, either.

In interviews with Poynter, critics characterized such evidence as anecdotal at best and said it requires reading criminals’ minds about motivations.

We asked CNN whether Miller had any evidence showing how common this modus operandi is. A network spokesperson, on behalf of Miller, declined to comment.

The spokesperson’s answer wasn’t sufficiently transparent for Mark Feldstein, the chair of broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Feldstein said his view was shaped by his experience as a former CNN correspondent and a journalist who has covered law enforcement.

Feldstein said he “never” would have made such an allegation on air “without having carefully researched and specifically attributed it. If I had been John Miller’s supervisor at CNN, I would have peppered him with specific questions. How many detectives told you this? From which law enforcement agencies? Which crews are they talking about? What do court records show about these crews? Did the detectives talk to any of these gang members to verify this information?  Did you?”

Feldstein said the substance of Miller’s assertion sounded dubious.

“The allegation doesn’t pass the plausibility test,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to rob in New York, and then drive the hot merchandise hundreds of miles to sell in Florida. That risks getting caught along the way and elevating the crime to a federal one of transporting stolen merchandise across state lines.”

By contrast, he said, “if crews sell the stolen loot in New York, it doesn’t really make sense to spend their ill-gotten cash only in Florida. That not only limits their spending options but it suggests that Florida is less vigilant catching criminals who spend suspiciously large amounts of cash. That’s precisely the opposite inference about Florida that Miller offers up.”

Feldstein said that in his opinion, “Miller and CNN need to back up this questionable and partisan allegation or retract it.”

Candace S. McCoy, an emeritus professor in criminal justice at City University of New York’s John Jay College, concurred, calling Miller’s comment “very sloppy.”

“Can Miller substantiate anything the detectives are telling him?” said McCoy, who has served as director of policy analysis for the New York Police Department’s office of inspector general. “It seems odd that the criminals would say that to the detectives.”

McCoy added that many NYPD officers today are angry about city prosecutors’ decisions not to charge some crimes and not to seek bail for some people they do charge. Some officers, she said, “interpret everything … through the lens of, ‘Now New York is insanely lenient.’”

Miller has moved back and forth between law enforcement and the media over the years.

Immediately before joining CNN in 2022, he served as deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism for the NYPD. He has also served in the federal government as deputy assistant director of national intelligence for analysis and as an assistant director of the FBI. In between, Miller has worked in journalism for New York’s WNBC-TV, ABC News and CBS News in addition to CNN. He has won two Peabody Awards and 11 Emmys.

Feldstein said that while such experience has made him unusually well-sourced within the law enforcement community, a revolving-door career path can hamper one’s distance from colleagues-turned-sources.

“The problem of reporters becoming compromised by covering the same beat for too long — ‘clientitis’ — is longstanding,” Feldstein said.

Feldstein also said the nature of cable news has played a role.

“One of the problems of having to fill 24 hours of airtime a day means that reporters and analysts are able to bloviate on-air for long stretches without first vetting, or even knowing in advance, what they will say,” Feldstein said. “Too often, news anchors let this go on unchallenged.”

PolitiFact staff writer Samantha Putterman contributed to this article.

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Louis Jacobson has been with PolitiFact since 2009, currently as senior correspondent. Previously, he served as deputy editor of Roll Call and as founding editor…
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