Sunday, October 08, 2006

Closing court records wrong reaction to Whosarat

Whatever you do, don't look at the man behind the curtain, says the Justice Department - at least, not if he's a gubmint snitch.

The SA Express News' Guillermo Contreras has a good article on the controversy surrounding the "Whosarat" web database of snitches and undercover police officers. ("Does web site level the playing field, or does it stack the deck," Oct. 8). The feds are telling law enforcement not to even visit the site for fear someone will match their IP addresses to searches to identify investigators on particular cases. While certainly the anti-snitching movement has spawned cases of witness intimidation, the scare rhetoric, especially references to terrorism, to me come off as breathless and overblown.

I've offered my views on the website here and here. Bottom line, while I support Whosarat's right to speak out and to post public information about informants, I disagree with their strategy: It seems to me an untenable position that enables thuggery, ignores the most serious problems with informants, and invites the kind of backlash described by the Express News. In other words, I disagree with what they are saying but defend to the Nth degree their right to say it.

Federal judges have rightly declared posting such information on the web is an exercise of free speech and refused to ban it, so the Justice Department is using stealthy, behind the scenes tactics to convince judges to simply quit making information about informants public. Reported Contreras:
Unable to pierce the constitutional shields, the Justice Department last month privately approached federal judges with claims that the information the judiciary posts online over its own electronic document-filing systems — called PACER and CM/ECF — is being used by to intimidate informants.

Although no specific case has been cited where an informant or agent has been harmed, one example the feds have circulated is that of an informant who was profiled on the site and had to be moved after printouts of his profile and photo were plastered on poles, signposts and cars in his neighborhood in Philadelphia.

The claims this month resulted in limits on what court documents the federal judiciary will make available in San Antonio and West Texas, and it is likely to result in a national lockdown on other law enforcement documents that may indicate who's ratting out whom.

That's a terrible idea - a recipe for near-certain abuse. The informant system is rife with corruption - what's needed is greater discovery and more sunlight cast on the use and abuse of snitching by law enforcement, not less.

There's a reason court documents are public records in this country: The US Constitution insists that every defendant has a right to a public trial, as well as a right to confront their accuser. Diminishing the public's access to those records diminishes accountability for law enforcement at a time when there's ample evidence greater accountability is needed.

See prior Grits posts on the subject of informants and the November Coalition's resource page on snitching.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm a reporter, and this is really important information I need to do my job. I can't believe they're just going to close these records by fiat. What can be done?