Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Feds may seal snitch records

Covering a subject I wrote about on Grits last fall, Adam Liptak at the New York Times yesterday shed light on troublesome efforts by the US Justice Department to keep information about government informants from the public ("Web sites listing informants concern Justice Department," May 22). In particular they're concerned about the "Whosarat" database I've discussed several times on Grits. Reported Liptak:

“We are getting a pretty significant push from the Justice Department to take plea agreements off the electronic file entirely,” Judge Tunheim said. “But it is important to have our files accessible. I really do not want to see a situation in which plea agreements are routinely sealed or kept out of the electronic record.”

Judge Tunheim said his committee was working on recommendations for a nationwide approach to the issue. He said he favored putting the details of a witness’s cooperation into a separate document and sealing only that document, or withholding it from the court file entirely.

If you're not an attorney, reporter, private investigator or opposition researcher, you've probably never had cause to view these types of records. But I sure have, and I can tell you that they're absolutely essential to keeping our justice system even minimally accountable.

We have public trials in this country, court documents and evidence are open records, and defendants have the right to face their accusers in open court. It would be an unconscionable travesty of justice to seal information about witness cooperation - if a witness testifying against a defendant had ulterior motives, the public has a right to know. Often snitches are used in more than one case and it's important for defendants to be able to learn about the history, pro and con, of witnesses against them. The only way to do that is to make these records about witness cooperation publicly available.

See significant discussions of Liptak's article in the comments at Sentencing Law and Policy and Slashdot, and also prior Grits posts on snitching.

1 comment:

j said...

I saw the story about this last night on the CBS news. Damn shame! I have been visiting the site since reading about it on Grits for the fist time-Katie Couric "exposing the guys trying to catch the 'bad guys'" but we know that is a joke. The 'bad guys' are all too often the same ones snitching in my opinion. I hope they aren't successful at throwing the site off the net!