The government’s use of criminal informants is largely secretive, unregulated, and unaccountable. This is especially true in connection with street crime and urban drug enforcement. This lack of oversight and quality-control leads to wrongful convictions, more crime, disrespect for the law, and sometimes even official corruption. At a minimum, we need more data on and better oversight of this important public policy.Much of the hearing focused on the terrible incident in Atlanta where Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year old woman was killed because she pulled a gun when police mistakenly raided her home. Realizing their error, police allegedly planted drugs in the apartment then tried to convince an informant to lie to defame her posthumously.
Natapoff argued that average people in crime-ridden neighborhoods don't benefit much from this investigative tactic, or rather its unintended consequences may outweigh those benefits. Indeed, because most street-level drug enforcement in practice targets low-income, often predominantly minority neighborhoods, Natapoff asks,
What does this mean for law abiding residents like Mrs. Johnston? It means they must live in close proximity to criminal offenders looking for a way to work off their liability. Indeed, it made Kathryn Johnston’s home a target for a drug dealer. It also means that police in these neighborhoods tolerate petty drug offenses in exchange for information, and so addicts and low level dealers can often remain on the street. It also makes law enforcement less rigorous: police who rely heavily on informants are more likely to act on an uncorroborated tip from a suspected drug dealer. In other words, a neighborhood with many criminal informants in it is a more dangerous and insecure place to live.In light of this testimony, Natapoff suggested three specific recommendations to the joint committee, some of which have been discussed previously on Grits:
These negotiations between criminals and law enforcement occur largely off the record, without rules or public scrutiny. This is the heart of the informant problem: secrecy and lack of accountability. The Atlanta police could plant drugs on Fabian Sheats – the alleged drug dealer and the first informant in this case -- because the culture of snitching told them that it would never come to light. In our system, 95 percent of all cases are resolved by plea, not by trial. [Ed. note, that figure is greater than 99% in Texas.] This means that the processes by which the government obtains information – even when they are illegal -- will typically remain secret.
- Data collection and analysis
- Judicial review of federal cooperation and benefits, and
- Reliability hearings and corroboration requirements