Thursday, December 05, 2019

Public policy responses to informant abuses

 Two informant related stories recall a raft of snitching coverage on this blog, now mostly more than a decade ago.

First, our pal Pam Colloff has the story of a Texas man turned professional snitch, including four death penalty cases, on the NY Times magazine cover this Sunday. Pam has created a newsletter associated with the 13.5k-word story, sign up to receive followups and updates.

Also, Keri Blakinger tweeted out documents showing that Officer Gerald Goines told Houston PD investigators in February that there was no confidential informant in the Hardin Street case, as he had declared in an affidavit justifying a no-knock warrant. Two homeowners died and four officers, including Goines himself, were injured because of those lies.

Long-time readers may recall that Grits extensively covered informant-related policy issues for several years, and in 2006 offered these top-line reform suggestions:
Corroboration: In the Bible, both Mosaic Law and New Testament writings demand that no one be judged guilty of a crime on the uncorroborated testimony of a single witness. Without going that far (though I'm willing if the Legislature is), it makes real sense to require corroboration for all testimony by witnesses who receive incentives, especially cash or reduced sentences for their own crimes. (After innocent people were framed in drug stings in Tulia and Hearne, the Texas Legislature in 2001 enacted a requirement for corroborating informant testimony in drug cases.) 
Reliability hearings: In civil cases, judges decide in reliability hearings whether expert witnesses with long lists of credentials may testify as experts. New statutes should require similar pretrial reliability hearings to ensure a judge deems an informant credible before a jury hears their testimony. 
Supervisory controls: All conversations between police and informants should be recorded. Alternatively, officers should only interview informants in pairs. Informants who will be used on more than one case should be interviewed by a supervisor, and more detailed statistical and other documentation about informants and their activities should be required. More supervisory check-offs on payments to confidential informants are needed, and payments above a de minimus amount should only be made in the presence of supervisors. These ideas could all be implemented administratively at the department level without changing the law. 
Right to counsel: Informant agreements are essentially informal plea bargains. Informants whose culpability for their own crimes will be reduced or prosecution avoided should routinely be afforded a right to an attorney before entering into a "snitch" agreement, just as though they'd been charged with a crime. These "contracts" are generally one-sided and may even obligate informants to commit crimes in which they wouldn't otherwise engage.
Texas has done more than many states to rein in informant abuses. In 2001, Texas required corroboration for drug informant testimony to secure a conviction. In 2009, the corroboration requirement was extended to jailhouse informants. In 2017, the Legislature required prosecutors to track informant use more closely and to disclose informants' histories to the defense. Other reforms, like then-Sen. Rodney Ellis' SB 260 from 2009, which would have required reliability hearings for incentivized informants, never got off the ground.

As far as this blog goes, once I was no longer employed to work on police accountability, Grits moved on to other topics (e.g., innocence, and later, decarceration). But at one time, Grits wrote quite a lot about informants. See prior, related coverage below the jump:


Gadfly said...

It's outside Texas, but Pro Publica yesterday had a piece on an exceptionally egregious Florida jailhouse snitch.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's the Pam Colloff story linked at the top, that and Keri's new disclosure are what inspired me to round up old content. "Exceptionally egregious" is right!

Anonymous said...

Gee, GFB, does that apply to racist scumbags in the Aryan Brotherhood?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@3:04, huh?

Anonymous said...

Just got back to a computer.
I was referring to the Aryan Brotherhood jail house snitch who was talking about Jimmy Fennel.
There didn't seem to be any problems with giving him credibility.