Sunday, February 13, 2005

A Snitch in Time

Since reading Prof. Natapoff's article on the consequences of snitching, I've developed a renewed interest in the subject. Here's a few things I wanted to link to so I'd have them. If you want to know more about the shadowy world of confidential informants, I suggest you take a look:

First, what is a snitch? The definition is not flattering.

The Wall Street Journal reported in December on disparities in use of snitches by federal US Attorneys, which the November Coalition has posted online. Highlight quote: "The big fish gets off and the little fish gets eaten." The Journal reported that decisions about who gets rewards for cooperation are "often haphazard and tilted toward higher-ranking veteran criminals who can tell prosecutors what they want to know."

Northwestern University law school's Center on Wrongful Convictions recently produced a booklet (pdf, 16 pages) arguing that snitch testimony is the leading cause of wrongful convctions in the United States.

Check out the Dallas News/WFAA-TV account of Texas' worst bad snitch case in recent memory -- euphemistically known as the Dallas "sheetrock" or fake-drug scandal.
In that case, a local drug dealer/snitch, making upwards of $200,000 per year in confidential informant fees alone, set up innocent migrant workers with large quantities of fake drugs. Half the cocaine supposedly seized by the Dallas PD in 2001 turned out to be fake drugs used to set up innocent people. (Investigators initially thought the substance was ground sheetrock, but it later turned out to be pool chalk.) Texas Monthly's account of the case is here. At least one person was set up by the same confidential informant using smaller amounts of real drugs, and dozens of additional cases were made based on his word.

Of course, lying snitches can get people killed, not just wrongfully incarcerated.

The problem is, these guys just tell prosecutors whatever they want to hear -- "Just let me go, man, I can get you Osama bin Laden."

In 1999, the Chicago Tribune showed how untrustworthy jailhouse snitches lied in death penalty cases.

Meanwhile, I wasn't aware of this somewhat dated PBS Frontline story on snitches in the drug war, including interviews with a confidential informant, "Tony," who said he set up innocent people.

Always a good reminder: After 9/11 and the PATRIOT Act, the feds decided to turn ISPs, phone companies, banks and other businesses into snitches.

Jeralyn has noted before that the "Snitch System Undermines Justice."

Of course, cops make certain obligations to snitches, and occasionally an informant is in a position to hold them accountable. In this case a snitch sued, he said, as a warning to other snitches: The reason "
I'm going forward with this thing is that I want other people to know the FBI does not take care of its people."

This book looks like an interesting read, but the price is a little dear. Maybe it's in the library, or maybe the job can pay for it.

Finally, I think snitches are corrupting the justice system, just like I don't think highly of the societal contributions of undercover drug cops, especially these task-force clowns focused on making large volumes of low-level busts. But neither do I think it's a good idea to identify confidential informants by name, online, in a database, as these folks have. CI's are tools of the prosecutors and police; it's wrong to subject them to persecution for succumbing to their weak position. Plus there's too great a chance that undocumented allegations of snitching will cause somebody to be wrongfully accused or even killed. (Housekeeping note: Whenever Grits has named a Confidential Informant, it's always somebody like Othella Kimbrew in Palestine, whose identity has already been made public in court documents or press accounts.)

If anybody knows of other resources on snitching, I'd appreciate you letting me know in the comments.

UPDATE: See other Grits writing on snitches linked at the bottom of this post.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks, Dan, that's very interesting. I don't actually question their right to do what they're doing at all, and where CI's names have been made public in court or through the media, I don't think it's improper to publicize snitches' identity or their activities in any individual case. I just don't think gathering such a database of informants and making it public on the web is a wise activist strategy, which is an entirely different criticism. Mostly that's because I think it misplaces the blame on the snitch, instead of on the prosecutors and cops who coerce and condone their problematic behavior. The former are criminals and will not respond to the details of legislation. It's the public officials who we can properly hold accountable by requiring disclosure of witness statements and deals before trial, requiring corroboration for snitch testimony, etc.

... said...

Going to be doing a piece on snitching for my soc of deviance class... some interesting comments and I'm going to check the Natapoff piece out... I also came across this story, which made me think more about it from a different (honestly less "white and privileged")perspective:

However, much of what I read lumps together CIs as whistle blowers and snitches. I think, if you read more about whistleblowing you'll see differences - at least differences which explain some of the motivations to action, namely that whistleblowers are more often than not in a position of supposedly acting in the "public good" by law and have witnessed some mal-doing. The often legally are obliged to report it and gain nothing when doing so. Snitching appears to be a corrupted version of this as Hill (link above) seems to be getting at. And CIs, when corrupt aren't really CIs are they - they're criminals, opportunists, what have you- the cops that employ them are dupes.

Anonymous said...

"If people got hurt or killed, it's kind of on them. They knew the dangers of becoming an informant," Capone said. "We'd feel bad, don't get me wrong, but things happen to people. If they decide to become an informant, with or without the Web site, that's a possibility."

This pretty much sums it up. As a former informant who was coerced into informing on some drug suspects some 30 years ago, I offer the following observation. In my case the police and court officials promised confidentiality. In my youthful ignorance, I hoped they were at least being straight with me. To beat a rap for selling half a gram of hashish (then a 20 year offense) at age 18 I rolled over on some people.

The situation turned out differently than they had promised, of course. Since criminal defendants have a constitutional right to information presented against them, informing is by definition not confidential. My name was soon all over my home town as a rat: my reputation ruined in that town for the duration. At least back then information traveled by word of mouth, and official records had to be accessed physically. In my case one of the people I testified against tried to murder me.

Welcome to the information age. Information wants to be free. That maxim applies to all information, now more than ever.

So my take on this situation isn't so much about the "whosarat" people: it's about the government's necessary reliance on informants to make especially drug cases. Prosecutors engage in blackmail and extortion to obtain the information they need. Those who co-operate with them do so at their own peril. In some cases that may be a price people are willing to pay to achieve their ends. The risk is and should always be a part of the equation.

It is disingenuous, though, for law enforcement and prosecutors to pretend that their practices aren't really at the root of the dangerousness of these situations. A simple fact is that the law enforcement people treat informants as expendable commodities, sometimes for the most trivial reasons.

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