Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Snitching Undermines Justice Institutions

Over the weekend CrimProf blog ran a feature highlighting Loyola (CA) law school prof Sasha Natapoff, and linking to her January article on Snitching: The Institutional and Communal Consequences, in the University of Cincinnati Law Review. If you have even a remote professional interest in the subject of snitches, or "confidential informants," to use the bureaucratic lingo, you simply have no choice but to read Natapoff's fine article. It's long, but if you print it out and take two hours to go through it like I did, it's worth it. Even if your interest in the criminal justice system is more policy oriented and you've never met a snitch, Natapoff is taking the debate over use of informants to a whole new level.

Lots of good stuff here. For example, she rightly describes the mechanics of informant agreements as an "extreme form of plea bargain," and fleshes out the implications. "The government (provisionally) agrees to reduce or eliminate a suspect's liability, while the suspect (temporarily) forswears his right to contest liability, while promising to provide information incriminating others," she writes. That's problematic, though, because:
the informant deal lacks the safeguards of the typical plea: specificity, completeness, finality, enforceability, judicial review and publicity, and, in the case of most informal negotiations, counsel. It is precisely these safeguards, however, on which courts and scholars have relied in justifying the system's heavy reliance on plea bargaining. Absent these protections and limits, the informant deal pushes plea bargaining towards the limits of its own legitimacy.
Pushed it right off the cliff, as far as I'm concerned, but seldom if ever have I seen the problems with this malevolent institution more sagely adumbrated. Natapoff estimates that an astonishing one in twelve black men returning to their communities from prison might be "active informants at any one time. By way of comparison, at the height of its power, the East German secret police -- one of history's most infamous deployers of informants -- had 174,000 informants on its payroll, approximately one percent of the entire East German populaton."

What a proud record: More informants than the East German secret police. Worse, she shows, informant use arguably causes as much crime as it's stopping:
a central harmful aspect of informant use is the official toleration of crime. ... The informant 'revolving door' in which low-level drug dealers and addicts are arrested and released with orders to provide more information arguably perpetuates the street-crime culture and law enforcement tolerance of it. At the very least, it violates the spirit of 'zero tolerance' and 'quality of life' community policing policies aimed at improving the communal experience of high crime communities. ... For communities already suffering from high crime rates, criminally active informants thus exacerbate a culture in which crime is commonplace and tolerated.
Ain't that the truth? In Palestine, a drug task force allegedly busted a man named Othella Kimbrew bringing large amounts of drugs into town in late 2002, but instead of getting him to finger bigger dealers up the food chain, they set the fellow loose for almost two years as a confidential informant in that 17,000 person town, giving him money to convince addicts to agree to help him buy crack. Hardly any of the 72 people, all black, who were arrested
based on his testimony in October were actually crack dealers (only four were busted with significant weight). Instead, by offering money to individual addicts to score drugs for him, Kimbrew roped drug users into charges of delivery and/or sale.

That begs the question, though, how much crime did the drug task force create in Palestine with its decision to spend two years paying for Mr. Kimbrew to arrange drug transactions? I see real-world examples of law enforcement creating crime all the time, just like Professor Natapoff describes. She's right on the money.

Some of her proposals are common-sense, open government type reforms that may even have a chance in conservative states. ACLU of Texas proposed requiring corroborating evidence for snitches and improving defense attorney's discovery access to information about informants in recent testimony to the Texas Senate Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. Natapoff also suggested more data collection and analysis about
confidential informant use, and restricting informant awards. Give her a read -- really good stuff from the ivory tower.


Mike Howard said...

I'm just now seeing this. Thanks for the great link. It'll be a long read, but it'll be worth it.

Anonymous said...

I think this is great and devistatingly true. I have been a victim of a snitch for the last 2 years of my life. I have not been convicted or arrested for any reason. I have been illegaly spied on. My life threatned many times by cops. It needs to stop. In the process, I have learned, that they can say anything they want, and you automatically become a victim of complete evilness. This person may simply not like you, and you become spied on, your privacy taken away. Your personal items are stolen and returned. Your office is broken into several times. You civil rights violated over and over.Listening devices, wiretaps, and cameras are placed in your home. You are now being followed everywhere. Your name is defamed, and everything you do, is now wrong or questioned. You become expendible. But other than that, we are peachy.

Anonymous said...

Passionate, but you seem to miss the point. The snitching Anderson Cooper inverstigated in the April 2007 piece was not that of "confidential informants" who are essentially "DESIGNATED SNITCHERS" but rather that of everyday witnesses to horrific crimes (think: Kitty Genovese) who opt to say nothing because "that's not tha way it's done on tha streets." These are people who would not even offer anonymous tips to a tip-line -- it has nothing to do with street cred, it has to do with living in a community of humans, as opposed to animals.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@2:17: This item was published two years before Anderson Cooper's piece, so it didn't "miss the point." I'm not clairvoyant. Guess you'll have to judge the arguments on their own merits.

Actually, IMO Cooper missed the point, arguing against a red herring instead of the real issues raised by use of confidential informants, like those Natapoff discusses. best,

Anonymous said...

I spent two years undercover, working with CI's. You all are missing the point, but pat yourself on the back the wicked Task Force is dead. Who will keep those living in neighborhoods under seige by drug dealers safe, now. The State Troopers are good at following the money and catching the drug couriers but who will walk up to a street level dealer and personally become involved in a street level narcotics transaction for prosecution now, nobody.
Stop waving the Tulia flag, that was one lone rouge narcotics cop....BS. Desperate people empowered a crooked cop to meet their desired ends using whatever means he could. I personally know more State Troopers that are in prison for crooked drug deals than there are Deputies and Police.
The problem is the desire for productivity overrides the obvious realization of the need for direct supervision, In other words a lack of required documentation and rules....the accountability lies in supervisors, Sheriff's, District Attorneys and fellow Officers.
Now run on down to your local crack corner and yell out, hey everyone look at me, I got the evil Task Force disbanded before those jack boot thugs destroy our lives and see who thanks you and who cusses you....

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Who mentioned Tulia here but you?