• SNITCHING: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice
  • U.S. Attorney General's Guidelines on the FBI's Use of Confidential Human Sources
  • Sarah Stillman, The Throwaways, The New Yorker (2012) (article on the use of juvenile informants)

Recent Blog Posts

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

FBI informants infiltrating Muslim communities

The New York Times just ran this piece entitled Muslims Say FBI Tactics Sow Anger and Fear. The piece describes the perennial tension between law enforcement's need to gather information and the needs and rights of groups and communities against whom informants are used. From the article:
Since the terror attacks of 2001, the F.B.I. and Muslim and Arab-American leaders across the country have worked to build a relationship of trust, sharing information both to fight terrorism and to protect the interests of mosques and communities. But those relations have reached a low point in recent months, many Muslim leaders say. Several high-profile cases in which informers have infiltrated mosques and helped promote plots, they say, have sown a corrosive fear among their people that F.B.I. informers are everywhere, listening. "There is a sense that law enforcement is viewing our communities not as partners but as objects of suspicion," said Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, who represented Muslims at the national prayer service a day after President Obama's inauguration. "A lot of people are really, really alarmed about this."
The book's section on political informants discusses the law and history of this longstanding tension. On the legal side, the government has substantial authority to use informants to monitor religious and political activities. Notwithstanding the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech and association, courts have made clear that the use of informants and infiltrators alone does not infringe the First Amendment rights of political or religious groups. This means that the FBI can legally send informants into mosques and churches to observe people and events. If those informants go further and actively interfere with constitutionally protected activities, the First Amendment may be violated.

The implications of informant infiltration, however, go beyond legal rules. Cases from the Vietnam War and civil rights eras describe how government informants undermined anti-war, civil rights, socialist, and other political organizations by provoking conflict and instigating illegal activities. Thirty years ago, MIT sociology professor Gary Marx wrote a seminal piece on the informant provocateur phenomenon entitled "Thoughts on a Neglected Category of Social Movement Participant: The Agent Provocateur and the Informant," 80 Am. J. Sociol. 402 (1972). Marx argued that informants can actually become an integral and problematic part of social organizations, warning that "undercover agents can seriously distort the life of a social movement; they can serve as mechanisms of containment, prolongation, alteration, or repression."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A witness intimidation crisis in Philadelphia

WSJ Blog picked up this lengthy story from the Philadelphia Inquirer, documenting rampant witness intimidation, violence, and the inability of city prosecutors to prosecute violent crimes. One witness saw his own written statement to police posted on a wall as a flier, with the following words scribbled on it: "Don't stand next to this man. You might get shot." From the Inquirer:
"It's endemic. People are frightened to death," said District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham. "We've had witness after witness intimidated, threatened, frightened." And the city cannot guarantee their protection. "That fear, that's real," said Jamie Egan, a former city prosecutor. "When people would ask me if I could guarantee their safety, I would say, 'Unfortunately, I cannot.'" Abraham has long fought for more money to protect and relocate witnesses in criminal cases. For 15 years, she has repeatedly complained, to no avail, that the city's program was underfunded and failing to meet a crucial need. Local funding for witness relocation is a fraction of the spending in the vaunted federal witness-protection program. Efforts to pump city money into the local program have failed year after year.
Witness intimidation is part and parcel of the more general violence, insecurity, and lack of resources in so many inner city neighborhoods. According to the National Institutes of Justice, witness intimidation is a longstanding problem in poor, high-crime communities like Philadelphia, especially in gang-dominated neighborhoods. Over a decade ago, studies warned about localized violence and witness intimidation in areas of concentrated poverty and crime. Stories like the Inquirer's suggest that the problem is now even more widespread. As I argue in the book, states need resources comparable to the federal WITSEC program to protect witnesses, particularly poor witnesses who lack resources themselves and may be stuck in violent neighborhoods. As a parent of a murdered young witness mourned in the Inquirer article:
"If you see something, you better look the other way. That's a sad thing to say to a victim, but I'm the number one candidate saying 'Don't tell nothing unless you can take care of yourself, because the city don't have nothing in place to help you.'"

Monday, December 14, 2009

IRS expands use of informants

Two fascinating stories from Forbes on the IRS's expanded Whistleblower Office: Tax Informants are on the Loose, and IRS Ordered to Surrender Informant Documents. In 2006, Congress told the IRS to start paying informants as much as 30% of delinquent taxes collected in big cases, and the scale of snitching has skyrocketed. As Forbes puts it:
The gambit seems to be working very well. The IRS continues to get thousands of small case tips a year. But in fiscal 2009, ended Oct. 30, the IRS Whistleblower Office also logged big case leads on 1,900 taxpayers, up from 1,246 in fiscal 2008, the first full year the new law was in effect. Dozens of these tips involve purported tax losses of $100 million or more. Sure, those are just allegations. But informants "often provide extensive documentation to support their claims,"' the Whistleblower Office noted in a report. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, in a separate report, added up all the 2008 tips and found that $65 billion in unreported income was alleged.
Perhaps the most famous case to date involves Bradley Birkenfeld, an employee of the Swiss bank UBS who gave the IRS information on how wealthy Americans were hiding money with his employer. Although Birkenfeld himself faces a 40-month prison sentence, he may be able to keep millions in reward money--another new rule. Again from Forbes:
Before the new law, IRS Whistleblower Officer Director Stephen Whitlock notes, "if you participated in the tax noncompliance--you could have been the accountant doing the ministerial activity--you could be flat-out barred" from a reward. Now such a functionary is eligible for a full reward, even if he is convicted of, say, stealing from the company he squeals on. An informant who "planned and initiated" a tax scheme is still eligible for a reduced award--unless he's convicted for that planning role.
In other words, the IRS is moving closer to the snitching norm, in which admitted criminals reap benefits from their cooperation. At the same time, the IRS informant program may be running into resistance. In the second story, a federal judge has ordered the IRS to return documents provided by an informant who stole the documents from the company Monex. Apparently the court was not content to let the government decide which stolen Monex documents were privileged, although the government is likely to get many of the documents back in the end. As Forbes frames the problem, "How far can the government go in using information from an insider and what should be the procedures for handling that information?" As I explain in the book, this concern for the privacy and rights of criminal targets--and the concomitant restrictions on informant use--is more characteristic of white collar investigations in which defendants tend to be well-resourced and well-defended, and is notably lacking in the street- and drug-enforcement arena.

Monday, November 30, 2009

On the air: Leonard Lopate & Joey Reynolds

While in New York I'll be talking about the book on the Leonard Lopate Show, WNYC Radio, on Wednesday, Dec. 2 at noon (eastern). You can listen to the live broadcast here. I'll also be on the Joey Reynolds Show, WOR Radio, which will air Thursday, Dec. 3, around 1:00 a.m. here.

Infamous "fake-drug scandal" informant re-convicted in Dallas

In 2001 in Dallas, Channel 8 TV and the Dallas Morning News revealed how a ring of police and their paid narcotics informants planted fake drugs (gypsum) on innocent Latino immigrants in order to inflate department drug bust statistics. Many of those innocent victims were deported before the scam was discovered. Now the main informant in that ring--Enrique Martinez Alonso--has been convicted again, this time for counterfeiting. See this post from GritsforBreakfast for an overview; here's the story from the Dallas News. This story is a classic example of how snitches can leverage cooperation to avoid punishment for ongoing serious crimes. Not only did the six informants led by Alonso earn $440,000 for their roles in the fake drug scandal, but Alonso's subsequent criminal sentences were drastically reduced because of his cooperation with authorities--he served five years before being deported in 2007, while his brother received a 20-year sentence. As Grits points out:
Enrique was always portrayed by the media and officialdom as the main informant working with Delapaz (and the seven other officers who allegedly faked field tests claiming Alonso's drugs were real), so it's somewhat shocking to learn he received a sentence only 25% of his brother's. That's a steep discount for his second stint as an informant - this time against his co-conspirators and police "handlers." This fellow keeps being compensated for snitching on others - by Dallas police, by the feds - even when he appears to be at the center of the criminal activity in question.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fernando Bermudez exonerated--informant found to have lied

Cleared of murder charges after serving 18 years, Fernando Bermudez was freed on Friday. See NYT story here and my

previous post. Four witnesses recanted their testimony, stating that they had been pressured by the government into identifying Mr. Bermudez as the shooter. The main witness, Efraim Lopez, testified falsely under a cooperation agreement guaranteeing that he would not be charged with any crimes, even though he was centrally involved in the shooting. Judge Cataldo concluded that the government either knew or should have known Lopez was lying. Judge Cataldo's opinion is available here. Although the government concedes that its main witness Lopez perjured himself at trial, it has announced that it intends to appeal.

Book is out & media appearances

My apologies for the break in posting--now that the book is out I've been spending quite a bit of time speaking and on the radio. Last week I gave author talks at Georgetown Law School and Howard Law School in Washington, D.C. Next week I'll be presenting the book at an event jointly sponsored by the Innocence Project and Cardozo Law School in New York. I've done several dozen radio interviews: here are links to a few of them (past and upcoming): Nov. 4, 1:00 a.m., After Midnight with Rick Barber ; Nov. 16, Up Front with Tony Cox; Nov. 24, 8:30 a.m. Weekly Signals; Nov. 30, Issues Today with Bob Gourley.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Recruiting new informants

Here's a revealing article in the Buffalo News: Walking thin line in Village of Attica: Would-be informant says police coerced her into cooperation. It's about Bianca Hervey, a 20-year-old college student who got pulled over by police for failing to pay her traffic tickets. The police threatened to put her in jail for the night, unless she agreed to become a drug informant. Although Hervey did not use drugs or have any connections to the drug world, police told her it didn't matter--she could still work as a snitch and try to set people up. Frightened of going to jail, Hervey signed the informant agreement. When she told her father, attorney Richard Furlong, what had happened, however, he "went ballistic." Furlong went to the police and to the City of Attica and complained about the recruitment of young people into the world of drugs, but the police and the Village Board refused to change the policy.

This story illustrates how snitching has quietly become such an immense part of the criminal justice system. Many cities have policies like Attica's, in which police can recruit any potential offender as a drug informant--even a 20-year-old guilty of nothing more than a traffic violation. It was this same type of policy that led to the death of 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman in Tallahassee, Florida, and triggered Florida's ground breaking legislation on the subject of informant-creation. See post: Florida's "Rachel's Law" offers some protections for informants.

Supreme Court hears case on prosecutorial immunity

Last week the Supreme Court heard oral argument in an important snitching case: Pottawattamie County v. McGhee. Two prosecutors are being sued for fabricating evidence -- essentially pressuring a criminal informant until he came up with the story they wanted and then using that story at trial. The issue is whether they have absolute immunity, as prosecutors typically do for trial-related decisions, or whether they were acting more like investigators and therefore would only have qualified immunity from suit. Radley Balko over at Reason has posted this comprehensive discussion of the case and oral argument. For defendants who have been convicted based on fabricated evidence, the only remedy to which they are typically entitled is the overturning of their conviction. See this post: Judge finds prosecutorial misconduct in permitting false informant testimony. A finding that prosecutors who fabricate evidence might be personally liable would significantly alter the dynamic between informants and the government.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Federal rewards for prison snitches

The federal rules of criminal procedure have special re-sentencing provisions for informants who provide information after they have already started serving their sentences. Rule 35(b)(2) permits a court to reduce a prisoner's sentence if the government asks the court to do so more than one year after sentencing. Rule 35(b)(1) governs such requests made less than a year after sentencing. Approximately 1,700 federal prisoners got such sentence reductions in fiscal year 2008. At least one federal judge, Judge Tucker Melancon (D-LA), has complained that inviting inmates to provide information while they are in prison is an invitation to fabrication. See post: Professional prison snitch ring.

Last month, the Seventh Circuit issued an opinion interpreting Rule 35(b)(2). In U.S. v. Shelby, the court held that a district judge contemplating a motion for a sentence reduction can only reduce the sentence based on the extent of the defendant's cooperation, and not on the more general sentencing factors contained in 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) which judges are required to consider when initially sentencing defendants. By contrast, the Sixth Circuit has held that judges can consider 3553(a)'s general sentencing factors--which include things such as a defendant's likelihood of rehabilitation, prior criminal record, and other personal history--when resentencing under 35(b)(2).

This may seem like an esoteric point, but it is important for several reasons. First, it affects thousands of sentences each year. Second, judges can consider the 3553(a) factors in refusing to reduce a cooperator's sentence; they just can't consider those factors if they want to lower the sentence. The Sixth Circuit deemed this to be an unfair "one-way rachet"--the Seventh Circuit didn't. Shelby also resists the general tide of recent federal case law that favors judicial discretion, since United States v. Booker restored sentencing discretion to federal judges. (See Sentencing Law and Policy blog for detailed discussions of Booker-related developments.) The Seventh Circuit, and other circuits that agree with it, have curtailed that discretion when it comes to rewarding post-sentence cooperation.

Finally, this case is a reminder of how central snitching is to federal criminal law. With the abolition of parole, federal offenders are required to serve nearly their entire sentences, regardless of their conduct in prison, further education, or other rehabilitation. As this case makes case abundantly clear, the only chance they have to earn early release is to give information to the government.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

American Law Institute withdraws code section on death penalty

Once in a while I share information about important non-snitch-related developments in the criminal system. The American Law Institute is an influential voice in the development of U.S. criminal law. It is made up of prominent judges, practitioners, and academics, and issues Restatements of Law and other scholarly resources that are widely relied on. One such resource is the Model Penal Code, a comprehensive criminal code worked out by criminal justice experts, on which many states have based their own criminal laws. The ALI has announced that it is withdrawing Section 210.6 of the Model Penal Code, which prescribes the procedures to be used when a court is considering imposing the death penalty. Here is the statement from ALI Director Lance Liebman:
For reasons stated in Part V of the Council's report to the membership, the Institute withdraws Section 210.6 of the Model Penal Code in light of the current intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment.
Here's a link to the report on which the decision was based: Report of the Council to the Membership of the ALI on the Matter of the Death Penalty. The Model Penal Code now has no provision for administering the death penalty, although the ALI describes itself as taking no position on the propriety of the death penalty itself. For a survey and discussion of recent death-penalty-related developments, see this post on Sentencing Law and Policy blog.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Yet another snitch exoneration

Yesterday's New York Times, "Unyielding in His Innocence, Now a Free Man," reports on the exoneration of Dewey Bozella. Mr. Bozella spent 26 years in prison for a murder charge that the state now says it has insuffient evidence to prove. From the Times:
The prosecution relied almost entirely on the testimony of two men with criminal histories, both of whom repeatedly changed their stories and both of whom got favorable treatment in their own cases in exchange for their testimony.
There was no physical evidence linking Mr. Bozella to the killing. Instead, there was the fingerprint of another man, Donald Wise, who was later convicted of committing a nearly identical murder of another elderly woman in the same neighborhood.
Mr. Bozella was eventually acquitted due in part to the efforts of the Innocence Project. On December 2, The Innocence Project will be co-sponsoring a discussion of my book in conjunction with Cardozo Law School.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Life imitating art imitating life...

A vice president of a multimillion dollar company turns informant to avoid liability, surreptitiously taping his high-level colleagues who are eventually charged with corporate fraud. If this sounds like the plot of the movie "The Informant" (reviewed here), it is. But it is also the plot of this news story about the theft of $2 million worth of fuel from the Mexican oil company Petroleos Mexicanos: "Ex-Bush aide tied to stolen oil case." Here's an excerpt:
Josh Crescenzi of Houston, former vice president for Continental Fuels of San Antonio, has been cooperating with agents of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for several months, helping them secretly record conversations that have resulted in the conviction of a Houston oil industry executive, another one from San Antonio and the president of a small oil and gas company in Edinburg.
Stories like this (and this) suggest that the use of active informants in white collar investigations, i.e. using cooperating suspects to actively snare high-level corporate offenders in ongoing wrongdoing, is on the rise, although since the whole arena is shrouded in secrecy it's hard to say if the practice is now more prevalent or we are just hearing more about it. In any event, because white collar informants and defendants are better resourced and represented than your typical street or drug snitch, we should expect such cases to improve the overall visibility and accountability of informant practices. As sociology professor Gary Marx wrote 20 years ago in his landmark book "Undercover: Police Surveillance in America":
When lower-status drug dealers and users or prostitutes were the main targets of covert operations, the tactic tended to be ignored, but when congressmen and business executives who can afford the best legal counsel became targets, congressional inquiries and editorials urging caution appeared.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"ICE agents mishandle informants"

The Associated Press reports that the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency is having the same sorts of informant problems that its FBI and DEA counterparts have long struggled against. Here's an excerpt from the story:
One immigration agent was accused of running an Internet pornography business and enjoying an improper relationship with an informant. Another let an informant smuggle in a group of illegal immigrants. And in a third case, an agent was investigated for soliciting sex from a witness in a marriage fraud case.
These troubling misdeeds are a sampling of misconduct by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel as the agency seeks to carve out a bigger role in the deadly border war against Mexican drug gangs.
According to documents obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, ICE agents have blundered badly in their dealings with informants and other sources, covering up crimes and even interfering in a police investigation into whether one informant killed another.
I blogged about this last incident a couple of months ago--see Informants Killing Informants. Now it appears that ICE deliberately steered El Paso police in the wrong direction to protect their murderous source. This behavior is reminiscent of the FBI's cover-ups of mafia informant murders and other crimes in the 1980s and 90s. Indeed, the official toleration and facilitation of crime is the core compromise at the heart of snitching, and suggests that insofar as ICE is making informants the centerpiece of its border strategy, its problems in this arena are only just beginning.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Of Insider-Trading, Informants,and Wiretaps

"Wall Street Meets the 'Wire,'" is a post from earlier this week on White Collar Crime Prof Blog, discussing the criminal case against billionaire hedge-fund manager Raj Rajaratnam for insider-trading. Here's a link to the news story on Bloomberg. The post focuses on the unusually aggressive use of wiretaps in the investigation, and asks whether the government was authorized under the federal wiretap statute to do so given the availability of cooperating informants. As the post explains:
Title 18 U.S.C. § 2518(3)(c) provides that a court issuing a wiretap authorization order must determine whether normal investigative procedures have been tried and have failed or reasonably appear to be unlikely to succeed if tried or to be too dangerous. This "necessity requirement" obligates the government to set forth a full and complete statement of specific circumstances explaining why traditional investigative techniques were insufficient or the application must be denied. In determining the sufficiency of an affidavit, a reviewing court must ensure that the issuing court properly performed [its] function and did not 'serve merely as a rubber stamp for the police'. The government is not under an obligation to exhaust all alternative means of investigation in satisfying the necessity requirement but, neither should it be able to ignore avenues of investigation that appear both fruitful and cost-effective.
Given that the government had three co-conspirators, including one as early as January 2006, acting as informants and cooperating witnesses, and that these individuals had unfettered access to Rajaratnam and others involved in the alleged conspiracies, the question arises whether the government deliberately stalled this investigation and actively resisted utilizing normal investigative techniques, hoping to induce the court into believing that only a wiretap could succeed.

The post doesn't mention it, but the government need not even get court permission for electronic surveillance if it has so-called "third party consent," i.e. if the informant agrees to record the conversation. 18 U.S.C. § 2511(2)(c).

This story illustrates the intimate legal relationship between informants and other forms of surveillance. The law privileges informant use, forcing the government to justify its use of wiretaps if informants are available--note that the post refers to snitching as a "normal investigative technique." Moreover, the law permits the government to circumvent the courts entirely and avoid asking for permission to record conversations if it can find an informant who will agree to the surveillance. The usual explanation for this hierarchy is that electronic surveillance is one of the most intrusive forms of investigation and therefore should be a means of last resort. Wiretapping is of course supremely invasive, but this fact obscures the fact that informant use can be similarly intrusive, i.e. when the government threatens friends and colleagues with criminal charges to get them to report on and record people they know. For those who are interested, Chapter Two of the book discusses informant law in detail.

The insider-trading story also hints at important differences between white collar and street/drug crime investigative tactics involving snitching. The culture of informant use is very different in these two realms: white collar informants tend to be (although not always) well controlled, represented by counsel, and provide information about past crimes, whereas drug informants tend to be poorly controlled, unrepresented, and permitted to engage in new criminal activity in order to generate evidence. At the same time, the two arenas share important features. Here's an excerpt from Chapter Seven:
White collar informing shares important characteristics with its street counterpart. Both confer a vast amount of discretionary, unreviewable authority on law enforcement. Both exacerbate power inequalities among potential offenders, as well as between vulnerable offenders and the government. In both arenas, the decision to permit cooperation means that the government is tolerating and forgiving crime, and sometimes even creating an atmosphere in which crime may flourish. And both deprive courts, and thus the public, of significant amounts of power over and information about the operations of the executive.
As informant use becomes increasingly prevalent in white collar investigations, we should expect to see more of the problems of unreliability and continued criminality that have become familiar in the street crime arena. See previous post: Committing Crime While Working for the Government.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Big Picture: adjusting the war on drugs?

While this blog is primarily devoted to the policy of using criminal informants, the significance of snitching is deeply connected to drug enforcement. It is largely because drug offenses constitute so much of our criminal system--around 30 percent of state felony convictions among other things--that snitching is such a pervasive phenomenon. Accordingly, big shifts in drug enforcement are big snitching news. The U.S. Department of Justice announced yesterday that it will no longer prosecute medical marijuana users and distributors in the 14 states that have legalized medical marijuana, as long as those users/producers obey state law. New York Times story here. This step represents an important repudiation of the punitive, enforcement-by-any-means-and-at-all costs rhetoric of the past twenty years of federal drug enforcement. Over the summer, writer/journalist Sasha Abramsky predicted in an article in the Nation that "the nation may soon see a gradual backpedaling from the criminal justice policies that have led to wholesale incarceration in recent decades." Monday's announcement might be evidence of just such backpedaling.

Friday, October 16, 2009

More fallout from the Jack Abramoff investigation

The Washington Post reports today on the sentencing of Bush White House official David Safavian, former chief of staff at the General Services Administration. Safavian was convicted of lying to federal investigators about thousands of dollars worth of perks and benefits he received from corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff. I think it is useful to follow the ripples left by the Abramoff affair because he is the paradigmatic example of what is both great and problematic about snitching. The great version: a bad guy cuts a deal with the government that exposes even worse guys, or "bigger fish," and heightens public awareness of flaws in the system. This is the best argument for offering lenience to serious offenders--on balance it can create a greater public good, and indeed Abramoff's conviction and cooperation has led to numerous other convictions and stronger ethics rules. The problematic version: Abramoff received a four-year sentence for his massive and ongoing corruption, not to mention a lesser sentence on a totally unrelated fraud charge in Florida. Had Abramoff sold a tablespoon of crack cocaine he would have gotten more prison time. Moreover, his cooperation has resulted in convictions of just a few "big fish": Congressman Bob Ney, Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles, as well as today's Safavian. While there have been other related convictions, they have mostly been of aides, other lobbyists, or players less powerful and culpable than Abramoff himself. Were these convictions worth letting the poster-child for corrupt lobbying off so lightly? This is the perennial dilemma with snitches: it is very hard to know whether we are actually getting more security and justice by letting them off the hook, or whether we too easily forgive serious wrongdoing in the name of cooperation.

Monday, October 12, 2009

"Snitch and you're a dead man"

Journalism professor and author John Fountain weighs in on the "stop snitching" phenomenon in the Chicago Tribune. He describes urban neighborhoods permeated with fear and insecurity, and takes issue with criticism of residents who are unwilling to talk to police. He writes:
In my experience growing up in an impoverished Chicago community like those under siege, it boils down to an issue of trust. And many who live in the city's most murderous neighborhoods -- who have also witnessed police and political corruption and a trail of broken promises -- simply don't trust the authorities enough to come forward. By doing so, they could be laying their lives on the line. It isn't that people don't want to tell. They do. And it isn't that they aren't concerned about their neighborhoods. They are. But to come forward is to risk everything, even in a world where "safety" is always relative.
Fountain's piece highlights a central reason that the public debate over criminal justice is so fractured: people and groups have radically different experiences and expectations. In neighborhoods where police are perceived as responsive, where people do not worry constantly about their personal security, where the legal system seems fair and effective, it makes eminent sense to talk to police. In neighborhoods where none of this is true, it might make sense not to. Such differences in perception show up quite publicly in debates over "stop snitching," but they quietly affect all aspects of the criminal process, from the way people relate to defense lawyers to the kinds of punishment people consider to be fair. In my view, this is one of the reasons that the "stop snitching" debate is valuable: it encourages the public exposure of some very different legal realities.

Huffington Post on jailhouse snitches and exonerations

Today's Huffington Post reports on the recent death row exonerations of Yancy Douglas and Paris Powell--both men were convicted based solely on in-custody or "jailhouse" snitch testimony. The post was written by John Terzano, president of the Washington D.C.-based Justice Project, which has produced a report on jailhouse snitch use and policy recommendations. Here's an excerpt from the post:
These exonerations highlight the power prosecutors have in securing convictions by utilizing in-custody informant testimony, even when no physical evidence links a defendant to the crime. Testimony by in-custody informants or "jailhouse snitches" as they are often referred, is a leading cause of wrongful convictions. With little to lose, jailhouse snitches have great incentives to provide false information to prosecutors in exchange for leniency or other forms of compensation. Deals that are made between prosecutors and jailhouse snitches do not often come to light when a jury has to weigh the evidence is a case.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

British "stop snitching" rap song on YouTube leads to convictions

Two british rappers have been convicted of obstructing justice for putting an anti-snitching rap song on YouTube. Story here. The two men had been arrested but not prosecuted in connection with a shooting murder last year. While the defendants claimed the song was just gangsta rap, the government argued that "the video had but one purpose--to threaten any witness to this incident to frighten them to such an extent that they would refuse to cooperate with the police."

The U.S. has First Amendment protections for art and speech that the U.K. lacks, which would make it significantly more difficult to prosecute such cases. Here, the government would have a heavy burden to show that the rap song represented a true threat aimed at a particular person and not a more general expression of anti-snitch sentiment. Although I am unaware of any such prosecutions to date, it is only a matter of time. A recent note in the Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts entitled "Can't Stop Snitchin': Criminalizing Threats Made in 'Stop Snitching' Media under the True Threats Exception to the First Amendment," addresses the legal standard. The piece argues that with sufficient specificity, some "stop snitching" songs might lose their First Amendment protection and qualify as threats, although it would be rare. As author Jacob Honigman puts it:
It might be theoretically possible--by recording a song that references a particular person or crime in a manner sufficiently serious enough to indicate that the artist actually intends to commit an act of violence, or by performing a song threatening snitches in front of a courthouse as a trial is scheduled to begin--for a hip-hop artist to cross the true threat line. But I am not aware of any such instance. This, combined with the tradition of affording all forms of music, including rap, full First Amendment protection, make it extremely unlikely that such a statement could be criminalized.
More generally, the First Amendment has not prevented rap lyrics from being used against their authors as criminal evidence. Rap songs have been admitted as evidence to show a defendant's intent or knowledge or as confessions of past criminal acts. Law Professor Andrea Dennis wrote an article on the phenomenon entitled "Poetic (In)Justice? Rap Music Lyrics as Art, Life, and Criminal Evidence," in which she argues that courts misapprehend the artistic significance of rap lyrics when they treat them as simple admissions of guilt or factual descriptions of a rapper's life.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Derrion Albert's death, "Stop Snitching," and people's reluctance to talk to police

Yesterday on CNN, Anderson Cooper reported on the terrible story of 16-year-old Derrion Albert who was beaten to death by four other teenagers in Chicago. The beating was captured on videotape--story here. Four people have been charged so far. Police Superintendant Jody Weis told Cooper that no one has come forward to identify three other potential perpetrators, even though numerous people witnessed the event. Weis stated, "We are literally getting killed by this code of silence, this no-snitching rule. We've worked hard to overcome it." Cooper responded as follows:
This is something we focused on a lot on this program over the years. I did a piece on 60 Minutes about it as well. This whole stop snitching effort, rappers are telling people don't be a snitch. And now the definition of a snitch is not just somebody who is involved in a crime and tries to rat out someone else they were involved with. Now there's this horrible definition of being a snitch is anybody who comes forward and talks about a crime they've seen. That's just the mentality that cannot be tolerated.
"Stop snitching" is an important phenomenon in urban criminal law enforcement; it is also deeper than comments like Cooper's suggest, which is why I devote an entire chapter of the book to it. In a nutshell, "stop snitching" is the legacy of three related trends: drug enforcement's heavy use of criminal snitches, increased gang violence against witnesses, and decades of mistrust between police and poor minority communities. While it is true that rappers often write songs that say "don't snitch," rap music should not be blamed for the fact that law-abiding residents of high-crime inner city neighborhoods are often too afraid of retaliation and/or too wary of police to report crimes. Here is an excerpt from the book:
The "stop snitching" phenomenon turns out to be complex, deep-seated, and long-standing. It did not begin with a DVD or a rap song, nor will it end when "stop snitching" t-shirts go out of style. It is simultaneously a criminal code of the street, a reflection of widespread communal distrust of police, as well as, more recently, a tool of intimidation against civilian witnesses. While the phenomenon was born in the penal system, it has spread beyond its criminal roots, a product of the multifaceted challenges of urban crime, gang violence, race, drugs, and policing through criminal informants.
To explain "stop snitching" is not to condone it--the world would be a better place if Chicago residents had the kind of relationship with police that would promote cooperation and information-sharing. But it is also important to give Chicagoans more credit--like so many people in cities such as Baltimore or Newark or Los Angeles, their reluctance to call police often stems from very real personal as well as historical experiences.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Witness intimidation, secrecy, and the right to a fair trial

Witness intimidation is a serious problem in many drug and gang-related investigations. When prosecuting certain defendants, the government needs to be able to protect its witnesses from threats and intimidation. At the same time, most defendants pose no threat to witnesses, and defendants are constitutionally entitled to know who will testify against them and to get material evidence about those witnesses. The Court of Appeals of Maryland, the state's highest or 'supreme' court, recently issued a thoughtful decision that highlights many of the tensions inherent in these two competing concerns. In Lancaster v. Maryland, in an armed robbery prosecution, the Court held that the trial judge erroneously permitted the government to withhold the names of key witnesses from the defendants before trial. The Court concluded that the government failed to support its contentions that the witnesses had been threatened or that the jailed defendants posed a substantial threat. The Court wrote:
The State failed to present any evidence regarding specific threats from Lancaster, his brother, or their associates, against the witnesses. No evidence was presented regarding Lancaster's reputation for violence . . . The state also failed to identify any persons who might have carried out the alleged threats against the witnesses as Lancaster and his brother were incarcerated at the time. . . . We further conclude that the protective order in effect tied defense counsel's hands and foreclosed him from pursuing a valuable source of information for cross-examination of the State's witnesses.
The government had withheld the names of four witnesses: two of those witnesses were accomplices in the robbery and received light sentences in exchange for their cooperation, a fact that the defendants did not learn until trial.

By contrast, in Coleman v. State, an earlier Maryland case, the Court concluded that the trial judge properly withheld witness names from the defendants. In Coleman, the defendants were part of a gang that had threatened witnesses, there was evidence of specific threats against witnesses, and the defendants in the case were accused of murder.

The Lancaster and Coleman cases highlight the contextual nature of the problem--in some cases, withholding witness names and other information unfairly prevents defendants from challenging the accusations against them, while in other cases it is a vital precaution. Courts are supposed to carefully evaluate the facts each time. All too often, however, the mere claim that witnesses might be intimidated is persuading courts and other decision-makers to keep information secret, a phenomenon I explore at length in Chapter Four entitled "Secret Justice." Here's an excerpt:
Informant practices are inherently secretive: snitches often need their identities protected for safety, while the effectiveness of informant-driven investigations turns on their clandestine nature. But the secretive effects of using informants go far beyond ongoing investigations or protecting particular informants' identities. Snitching has altered the ways that investigations are conducted and recorded; it affects public record-keeping by police and prosecutors, discovery practices, and what gets written down during plea negotiations. It has also shaped the informational rules prescribed by Supreme Court doctrine, internal judicial branch information policies, and even information-sharing between the Department of Justice and Congress. In other words, the pressure to conceal informant practices broadly affects the criminal system's culture of record keeping, adversarial information-sharing, public policy and disclosure, making the entire process less transparent and accountable.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Movie Review--The Informant

In 1992, Mark Whitacre was vice president of operations at agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, handling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts and overseeing the production of lysine, a key corn-based ingredient in animal feed. At the same time, for nearly three years Whitacre worked with the FBI to obtain evidence implicating ADM in a massive international price-fixing scheme. As do most informants, however, Whitacre had issues. He was factually unreliable, personally unstable, and--without giving away the story--engaged in a few shenanigans of his own. The New York Times calls the movie "a smart, cynical comedy" about greed and corporate malfeasance, and it certainly is. But the story of how the federal government came to believe, rely on, adore, distrust, despise, and ultimately discard Whitacre as an informant is also a whirlwind tour through many of the benefits and dangers of real-life informant use.

The Informant, starring Matt Damon, opened this weekend and it is based on Kurt Eichenwald's best-selling non-fiction book of the same name published in 2000. The book, which weighs in at a whopping 550 pages, is an exhaustively detailed journalistic expose of the seemingly incredible facts of Whitacre's cooperation with the FBI. While the movie is a comedy, with plenty of chuckles at the topsy-turvy quality of Whitacre's personality and the resulting ups and downs of the ADM investigation, the book is more disturbing than funny. It offers an up-close view of how heavily the government depended on Whitacre, its inability to control or adjust to his deviations, how ADM's money and political influence shaped the legal outcomes of the investigation, and how justice got deeply twisted along the way. As a factual matter, the film tracks the book relatively closely, and so while people may leave the movie theater shaking their heads over the craziness of it all, they would do well to take the underlying revelations of the film seriously. The Informant points to some very non-fictional truths about the productive yet dangerous marriage of convenience between the government and its informants. Here are a few take-aways:

Cracking Big Cases. If nothing else, The Informant makes abundantly clear why law enforcement goes through the trouble of cultivating informants: they are often the only way to crack big cases against politically powerful or otherwise hard-to-penetrate organizations such as corrupt corporations, drug rings, or terrorist groups. The FBI's storied history with its mafia informants is a case in point. On the one hand, informants with names like "Sammy the Bull" Gravano enabled the investigation and prosecution of some of the most powerful mafia figures in history--including John Gotti--and over the years helped the government undermine the power of the mob. On the other hand, the FBI's habit of letting its informants commit serious crimes like murder, racketeering, and money laundering has given snitching a bad name, and subjected the FBI to heightened scrutiny, congressional disapproval, and millions of dollars in civil liability.

Unreliable. At the end of the movie's preview, Mark Whitacre casually informs his lawyers (and by implication the audience) that "I haven't been telling you guys the whole truth." This might be the biggest understatement of the movie, and it reflects the more general truth that informants are deeply unreliable sources of information. For example, the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School reports that 45.9 percent of documented wrongful capital convictions have been traced to false informant testimony, making "snitches the leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital cases." Several states, including California, New York, Texas, and Illinois, have considered or implemented new laws to restrict the use of unreliable informant witnesses.

"Falling in Love with Your Rat." This is how one federal prosecutor in New York describes the fact that law enforcement officials can become so dependent on their informant sources that they develop personal attachments to them and lose their objectivity. This attachment can impede the government's evaluation the real usefulness or reliability of their long-term sources. Mark Whitacre's FBI handlers, for example, grew so fond of him that they carried around photos of him and his family--a fondness that eventually blindsided them.

Vulnerable Informants. Like most informants, Mark Whitacre was also a vulnerable person. First and foremost, he was vulnerable to retribution from ADM--the company against which he cooperated. The threat of retribution and potential violence against cooperators is a widespread problem, particularly in gang-related cases. While the federal WITSEC program is well known and well funded, most states have few or no resources to protect or support witnesses who risk their security by cooperating.

Whitacre was also vulnerable in other ways which I won't disclose, but that, as the book describes in detail, made his FBI handlers very uncomfortable with the eventual resolution of the investigation. While Whitacre was hardly a typical snitch, his predicament reflects the widespread reality that informants, like the criminal justice population more generally, are often vulnerable people: young, frightened, undereducated, suffering from substance abuse or mental health problems. Their weaknesses make them more easily pressured into cooperating, and less able to make self-protective decisions, and the criminal system has almost no mechanisms to protect them. In recognition of this fact, Florida recently passed first-of-its-kind legislation entitled "Rachel's Law" (see previous post) which extends some much-needed protections to people who become informants.

In the end, The Informant is plain old good entertainment. But it also provides an accurate glimpse into the machinations of criminal justice, a drama that seems "unbelievable" even though it is all too real.

The Informant is rated R for occasional foul language.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Florida's "Rachel's Law" offers some protection to informants

While using criminal informants can produce bad evidence and even sometimes more crime, the snitching phenomenon is problematic in other, more complex ways. Criminal snitches themselves are often vulnerable people--they may be young, undereducated, or suffering from substance abuse or mental disabilities. Indeed, this is true more generally for the majority of people in the criminal system. When police pressure such suspects to cooperate, many people feel as if they have no choice, even if cooperating is not in their best interests. Last year, 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman became an informant in Tallahassee, Florida, trying to avoid jailtime for her possession of a small amount of drugs. Police sent her on a sting operation during which she was killed. Her death triggered an outcry and resulted in ground breaking legislation to regularize the process by which police turn people into informants. My op-ed on the new law is published here in the Daily Journal, and it describes some of the law's features:
It creates new, basic mechanisms to protect informants and to increase police accountability. For example, Rachel's Law requires law enforcement agencies to establish policies and procedures, including recordkeeping rules, to guide police when they turn a suspect into an informant - essential regulations that most United States police departments lack. The law also requires police to tell suspects that police cannot make promises about what charges will be filed or dropped in exchange for cooperation - only a prosecutor can do that. Police must also consider an informant's suitability - including their age, maturity, and risk of physical harm - before entering into an agreement. This last requirement is a nod to the fact that many experts concluded that Rachel Hoffman was unsuited to the dangerous task that police assigned her.
The bottom line is that being an informant can be a very dangerous thing. Not only may the undercover work itself pose risks, but snitching can subject people to retribution and violence from all sort of sources. More on this in later posts.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Judge finds prosecutorial misconduct in permitting false informant testimony

A federal judge has ordered a new trial for four drug conspiracy defendants because the government permitted its lead witness--a criminal informant who received lenience in exchange for his testimony-- to lie on the stand. Chicago Tribune story here. Prosecutors have a well-established constitutional obligation not to permit false testimony-- such conduct violates the defendant's right to due process. This case is unusual in part because it is typically very hard to prove informant falsehoods to the satisfaction of a court; the violation here occurred and was litigated during the trial. In this case, the informant Senecca Williams testified that he had witnessed the defendants packaging and discussing drugs during 2002-2003, a period during which he was actually incarcerated and could not have witnessed those things. Williams also testified that the 2002 events took place in "the Granville apartment," whereas in fact defendant Freeman did not occupy that apartment until at least a year later and one defendant, Wilbourn, was never there at all.
The government maintained throughout that Williams was being truthful and that the government stood by his testimony. In concluding that the prosecutors engaged in misconduct, U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow wrote:
It is well established that the prosecution may not use testimony it knows to be false. . . . The court cannot accept the government's glib assertion 'that Williams was at most merely mistaken about the dates of the occurrences about which he testified.' For Williams's testimony was false not only because the drug-related activities involving defendant Wilbourn that Williams recounted as occurring in late 2002 and early 2003 could not have taken place during that time period, but also because those events could not have occurred where Williams claimed they took place--the Granville apartment in which Wilbourn was never present.
The finding of prosecutorial misconduct resulted in a new trial for all four defendants on one count of the indictment; the defendants remain convicted of numerous other charges for which they await sentencing.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Afghan airstrike triggered by single informant

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the NATO airstrike that killed numerous Afghan civilians was based on intelligence received from a single informant, in violation of command policy. According to the Post:
The decision to bomb the tankers based largely on a single human intelligence source appears to violate the spirit of a tactical directive aimed at reducing civilian casualties that was recently issued by U.S. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new commander of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. The directive states that NATO forces cannot bomb residential buildings based on a sole source of information.
The civilian equivalent to the McChrystal directive is the corroboration requirement, which comes in a variety of forms. A dozen or so states have an accomplice corroboration requirement stating that no defendant can be convicted based solely on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice. Texas has a relatively new and important informant corroboration requirement which prohibits the conviction of any drug defendant based solely on the testimony of a single informant. Texas promulgated its rule after the 1999 Tulia debacle, in which a single undercover narcotics agent falsely charged a large percentage of the town's black population, many of whom were convicted without any corroborating witnesses or evidence. The California legislature has twice passed legislation that would require corroboration for jailhouse informants--Governor Schwarzenegger has vetoed it both times. And while criminal snitches have unique problems that distinguish them from military, national security, and other kinds of informants, all classes of informants share deep unreliability risks. The NATO airstrike provides yet more evidence of the value of having and honoring corroboration requirements.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

New Yorker Article--Of Experts and Snitches

In this extensive New Yorker article, reporter David Grann tells the story of how Texas prosecuted and executed Cameron Todd Willingham for the alleged arson murder of his three children. Willingham always insisted on his innocence, and recent forensic evidence indicates that the fire was in fact an accident. A Texas government commission is reviewing the case--as Grann puts it, if the commission concludes that Willingham did not set the fire, "Texas could become the first state to acknowledge officially that, since the advent of the modern judicial system, it had carried out the 'execution of a legally and factually innocent person.'"

There were two controversial kinds of evidence used at Willingham's trial. The first and most important was the state expert's opinion that the fire was intentionally set. The second was the testimony of Johnny Webb, a jailhouse snitch with drug and mental health problems, who was hoping to "get time cut" off his robbery and forgery charges and who testified that Willingham confessed to him. Eight years after the trial, in 2000, Webb recanted his testimony, but within months he recanted again. Here are a few excerpts from the story describing Webb.
Not long after Willingham's arrest, authorities received a message from a prison inmate named Johnny Webb, who was in the same jail as Willingham. Webb alleged that Willingham had confessed to him . . . During Willingham's trial, another inmate planned to testify that he had overheard Webb saying to another prisoner that he was hoping to "get time cut," but the testimony was ruled inadmissible, because it was hearsay. . . . Years later, in 2009, reporter David Grann interviewed Webb. After Grann pressed him, Webb]said, "It's very possible I misunderstood what he Willingham said." Since the trial, Webb has been given an additional diagnosis, bipolar disorder. "Being locked up in that little cell makes you kind of crazy," he said. "My memory is in bits and pieces. I was on a lot of medication at the time. Everyone knew that." He paused, then said, "The statute of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn't it?"
This is a good example of how jailhouse informant testimony can not only create bad cases but bolster weak ones. Because of the general understanding in the criminal system that informants get a break, informants may reach out to the government to offer testimony, making bad cases look better. In other words, the culture of snitching generates evidentiary "filler," even if the government is not actively looking for any.
The New Yorker story is centrally about the role of bad forensic expertise, and it highlights similarities between experts and informants. Both are paid and controlled by one side, both have a stake in the outcome, and both offer testimony that is difficult to cross examine or rebut. Professor George Harris wrote an article on these similiarities entitled "Testimony for Sale: The Law and Ethics of Snitches and Experts," in Pepperdine Law Review, in which he argues that experts and snitches alike should be subject to more rigorous controls and adversarial testing. In particular, he offers a proposal, on which I expand in my book, to create "defense informants," i.e. informants who could testify for defendants and receive the same kind of benefits that informants can now receive only by testifying for the prosecution.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

New ABA opinion on prosecutorial duty to disclose information

The American Bar Association just released an important new opinion regarding the prosecutorial ethical duty to disclose evidence and information favorable to the defense. The rule itself requires prosecutors to "make timely disclosure to the defense of all evidence or information known to the prosecutor that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense." The opinion interprets this ethical mandate very broadly: it is more demanding than constitutional Brady disclosure requirements; it covers all information favorable to the defense, not just evidence; it is up to the defense, not the prosecution, to evaluate the utility of the information; the government must disclose information as soon as is reasonably practical, and the defendant cannot waive these rights or absolve the prosecutor of her disclosure duties. Here are a few key excerpts:
Rule 3.8(d) is more demanding than the constitutional case law in that it requires the disclosure of evidence or information favorable to the defense without regard to the anticipated impact of the evidence or information on a trial's outcome. . . .The rule requires prosecutors to disclose favorable evidence so that the defense can decide on its utility.
The ethical duty of disclosure is not limited to admissible 'evidence' . . .; it also requires disclosure of favorable 'information'. Though possibly inadmissible itself, favorable information may lead a defendant's lawyer to admissible testimony or other evidence or assist him [sic] in other ways, such as in plea negotiations.
For the disclosure of information to be timely, it must be made early enough that the information can be used effectively. . . . Once known to the prosecutor, [evidence and information] must be disclosed under Rule 3.8(d) as soon as reasonably practical. . . Among the most significant purposes for which disclosure must be made under Rule 3.8(d) is to enable defense counsel to advise the defendant regarding whether to plead guilty.
Where early disclosure, or disclosure of too much information, may undermine an ongoing investigation or jeopardize a witness, as may be the case when an informant’s identity would be revealed, the prosecutor may seek a protective order.
This is an extremely important opinion for informant law and practice, for several reasons...(more after the break)

First is that a great deal of snitch litigation involves so-called Brady or Giglio claims (see this previous post), in which it is alleged that the prosecution withheld information from the defense about snitch witnesses. The ABA opinion not only reiterates the importance of prosecutorial disclosure generally, but explains that the prosecutor's ethical obligation to hand over favorable information is broader than her constitutional obligation. In other words, even if the Constitution does not require disclosure, the prosecutor has an independent professional duty to disclose. While the violation of this duty will not invalidate a conviction, it could lead to professional discipline or firing.

Another interesting feature of the opinion is that prosecutorial supervisors must "establish procedures to ensure that the prosecutor responsible for making disclosure obtains evidence and information that must be disclosed." This includes keeping track of information in one case that might need to be disclosed by a different prosecutor in another case. In other words, prosecutor offices must have data collection and dissemination mechanisms by which their employees can comply with their ethical obligations. This position contrasts with the recent Supreme Court decision in Van de Kamp v. Goldstein this year, in which the Court held that prosecutorial supervisors could not be sued for failing to create data collection systems to provide informant-related impeachment material to defendants. While under Van de Kamp a chief prosecutor cannot be sued for the office’s lack of disclosure procedures, under the ABA opinion she could be disciplined.

In effect, the ABA has decided that the Supreme Court's decisions on prosecutorial disclosure are too weak, ethically speaking, and that prosecutors and their supervisors have far stronger professional obligations to disclose information to defendants, including information about government informants.

Ethical obligations are a crucial feature of the legal profession--attorneys can be disciplined, fired, or disbarred if they violate the ethical rules of their jurisdiction. Disclosure obligations are likewise central to prosecutorial integrity. Attorney General Eric Holder recently threw out the corruption case against Alaska Senator Ted Stevens because Holder concluded that DOJ lawyers violated their obligation to disclose information to the defense. NPR story here. Insofar as states and prosecutors take this new ABA directive seriously, it could be a powerful engine for increased disclosure and transparency.

On a more technical note (non-lawyers may want to tune out here), the opinion does not explicitly address a constitutional issue raised by the Supreme Court in Ruiz. The Ruiz Court distinguished between exculpatory Brady material--material that directly pertains to the defendant’s guilt or innocence--and exculpatory Giglio impeachment material--material suggesting that the state's witness is lying. Classic Giglio includes information about informant rewards, the informant's criminal record, prior history of cooperation or falsehoods, or anything that would impeach the informant's credibility. The Ruiz Court held that although Giglio material is a form of Brady material, the government can withhold that information from defendants prior to the entry of a plea, although not prior to trial. The ABA opinion makes clear, however, that prosecutors cannot wait for trial, but have to disclose information early enough so that defendants can use it meaningfully during plea negotiations.

The question is therefore whether Rule 3.8(d) applies to Giglio impeachment material in the same way that it applies to information that "tends to negate the guilt of the accused." In my view, it does, although I recognize that the ABA opinion does not expressly say yes or no, nor does it distinguish between Brady and Giglio the way the Court did in Ruiz. The opinion does say, however, that a prosecutor's ethical disclosure obligations are broader than her Brady disclosure obligations, which would suggest that the ABA did not think that the Ruiz distinction matters in the ethical context.

Perhaps more fundamentally, the opinion's broad language seems consistent with requiring prosecutorial disclosure of Giglio impeachment. The opinion says that prosecutors must disclose any information favorable to the defense, even if it's not material to the outcome, and that the defense gets to decide on its utility, particularly in figuring out whether to go to trial, plead guilty, or investigate other evidence. These are precisely the sort of decisions that are made based on impeachment material. The ABA even contemplates the situation where the government wants to withhold the identity of an informant: the opinion says that the government can seek a protective order, not that the government can withhold the information. In sum, it would seem anomalous for the opinion to require such broad disclosure, but then permit a prosecutor to withhold the fact that her main witness is being compensated for his testimony and has lied in previous cases.

Monday, August 24, 2009

No Special Treatment for Madoff Cooperator

The Wall Street Journal Law blog posts here that U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan has refused to let cooperator Frank DiPascali out on bail, even though DiPascali has pled guilty and is helping the government unravel the Madoff scheme. The reason this is newsworthy is that everyone expects courts to treat cooperators well, even when they've committed major crimes (DiPascali's crimes include helping Madoff, lying under oath to SEC investigators, and forging documents--he faces 125 years in prison). In other words, Judge Sullivan is the exception that illustrates the rule. It is more typical for prosecutors and courts to quietly accommodate cooperators--keeping them out on bail, dropping charges, and even helping them with criminal cases in other jurisdictions. In my view, and as I argue in my book, these commonplace accommodations and the culture of cooperation more generally have skewed the criminal system's approach to culpability. Offenders are evaluated as much for their usefulness as their wrongdoing, and even the most heinous crimes have become opportunities for negotiation. For a haunting example, read this story in the Washington Times entitled Drug Dealer Avoids Jail in Daughter's Killing, about a drug informant who avoided punishment for the death of his daughter who died of, among other things, a fractured skull and severe malnurishment.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Police Internally Split on Confidentiality Issue

Thanks to Scott Henson from Grits For Breakfast for passing along this important story on a battle raging within the St. Louis police department. Rank-and-file police are refusing to provide information about their snitches to their own police supervisors and city police officials. Here's an excerpt:
Worried about liars in their ranks, city police officials are demanding that up to 20 officers tell bosses details about their confidential informers. But the St. Louis Police Officers Association has won a temporary restraining order to block the inquiry, pending a hearing in court next week. The organization says the probe would jeopardize informers' lives, officers' careers and public safety. At issue is whether officers have attributed fabricated information to confidential informers to obtain search and arrest warrants. Police brass acknowledge in court filings that they believe "one or more" officers "have included false information in affidavits" for warrants, and say the investigation is aimed at stopping "the concerns of police abuse and violation of civil rights."
Ironically, one of the officers' arguments against holding a public hearing is that if informants are called to testify, they will lie. These being the very same informants that police rely on to get the warrants in the first place.

The fact that street cops are at odds with their own police officials on this question reveals some deep dynamics about snitching, including what I call the culture of secrecy surrounding the entire practice. Police and their informants are heavily dependent on one another--police need information while offenders need protection against punishment. Police will often go a long way to protect their sources, famously from defendants and courts, but often from prosecutors and even sometimes from their own police supervisors. This does not mean that police handlers are necessarily corrupt: handling criminal informants inherently means doing unsavory things like ignoring their crimes, bending the rules, sometimes providing addicts with cash for drugs. However, the culture of secrecy makes illegal police conduct that much easier. See this NYT story on Brooklyn police who supplied their informants with drugs. Kudos to the St. Louis police officials who are trying to make the process more accountable and transparent.

Thank You to Other Bloggers

Snitching Blog has gotten some wonderful "welcome to the neighborhood" posts on other blogs. My thanks to, Grits for Breakfast, Hit and Run, Sentencing Law and Policy, and TalkLeft.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Committing Crime While Working for the Government

TalkLeft picked up on this story about a Secret Service informant who, while assisting the government, launched one of the largest identity theft operations in U.S. history. Back in 2003, Albert Gonzalez avoided indictment for identity fraud by becoming a snitch; his cooperation resulted in the dismantling of a significant identity theft ring of which he appeared to be the ringleader. He kept on with his criminal activities, however, apparently even using his government connections to warn other hackers.

This is simply one of the biggest problems with informant use: the fact that offenders can use active cooperation not only to avoid punishment but to continue offending. It is a problem inherent in snitching: the most useful informants are typically the most active criminals, so the government has to tolerate some amount of criminality in exchange for information about and access to criminal activities. The scale of the phenomenon ranges: from the small (addicts who stay on the street by providing information to police) to the large (drug dealers who remain in operation by informing on colleagues and competitors) to the mind-boggling (terrorists who provide information to the U.S. government while participating in new terrorist activities). In my book I write extensively about the harm that this practice can cause in high-crime urban communities in particular. When law enforcement tolerates crimes committed by cooperating offenders, whether it is drug use, property crimes, or violence, the neighborhoods in which those offenders live have to put up with it.

Troy Davis Gets a Hearing--Recantation Redux

I posted the other day about how hard it is for defendants to get new trials when the witnesses against them have recanted. Yesterday, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of granting death row inmate Troy Davis a new hearing. Of the nine witnesses who testified that Davis shot and killed Officer Mark MacPhail in 1989, seven have recanted. Of the remaining two witnesses, one--Red Coles--is suspected of being the actual shooter. Here's the NYT story .

While the Davis case is not ostensibly about snitching, it revolves around some classic dynamics associated with informant use and its unreliability. One recanting witness--Kevin McQueen--was in fact a jailhouse snitch who testified that Davis confessed to him. McQueen had worked several times before as a police informant and knew the value of providing information against other inmates. When Queen recanted, he explained that he had fabricated the confession based on jailhouse gossip and television reports. Here's the excerpt from the original appeals brief:
Ex-inmate Kevin McQueen testified at Davis' trial that Troy had confessed to him. McQueen had been a "snitch" in other prosecutions and his version of Troy's "confession" differed wildly from established facts (e.g. Troy was eating breakfast at the Burger King in the morning). McQueen subsequently admitted, "[t]he truth is that Troy never confessed to me or talked to me about the shooting of the police officer. I made up the confession from information I had heard on TV. and from other inmate's talk about the crimes. Troy did not tell me any of this."
This tactic of fabricating other inmates' confessions based on jailhouse talk and publicly available information was made famous by Leslie Vernon White, a Los Angeles jailhouse snitch. In 1989, White went on 60 Minutes and showed reporters how with a few phone calls from the jail he could get enough information to fabricate a confession that police and prosecutors would accept as true. The ensuing Los Angeles Grand Jury Investigation (link to the left) was a response to the White revelations.

Another important aspect of the Davis case that commonly occurs in informant cases is the "first-in-the-door" phenomenon, in which the first suspect to cooperate with police not only gets to direct attention away from himself but can fundamentally shape the official investigation. Red Coles is the man who several witnesses now identify as the real shooter. The day after the shooting, Coles and his attorney went to police and fingered Davis as the shooter--Coles became a witness against Davis at trial. As a result of Coles's cooperation, police resources were directed at Davis. This happens all the time with informants, especially in complex fraud or drug cases--the first suspects to cooperate shape the entire investigation and make it more difficult to discover the truth. Former prosecutor Steven Cohen describes what happens when the government believes a witness who cooperates early:
It is a certainty that the information obtained from the cooperator will become part of the base of information utilized to evaluate future would-be cooperators. Moreover, the information will affect future questioning of witnesses and defendants; it will alter how investigators view the significance of witnesses and particular pieces of evidence; and it may taint the way the case is perceived by the prosecutors and agents. In other words, false information skews the ongoing investigation. The false information may prove critical to issues that have far greater import than whether to accept as true the proffer of another would-be cooperator. Rather, it might impact decisions regarding charges to be filed against other defendants, it might affect decisions related to an appropriate plea for a given defendant, and it might even influence whether the government decides to seek the death penalty. (Steven M. Cohen, "What is True? Perspectives of a Former Prosecutor," 23 Cardozo L. Rev. 817, 825 (2002)).

Monday, August 17, 2009

RSS Feed now available

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Thanks to all the commenters who asked for an RSS feed. Will get it up asap. The blog is still so new we are still working out some glitches.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Informants Killing Informants

To what extent should the government employ and reward murderers, drug dealers, and other criminals as informants? In a developing case in Texas, the U.S. government is trying to figure out who killed one of its Mexican drug cartel informants. Turns out it might have been another U.S.-run informant. Story here.

I bring up this incident because it illustrates a bunch of key issues. One is just a matter of scale: there are now so many informants in the system that we get cases like these in which the government is running the people on both sides of the crime. That's how deep the phenomenon runs.

Second: The government routinely permits serious criminals to remain at large because they are useful, even though they are highly likely to commit new crimes. As one former U.S. special agent remarked about the Texas case, federal officials knew that their informant's job was tracking down people that the cartel wanted to execute. Given that, they "probably should have known he was conspiring to kill someone." Now they're mad because he may have killed one of their other informants. The problem of government-tolerated snitch crime is an old problem. Check out the 2004 congressional report at the left entitled "Everything Secret Degenerates: The FBI's Use of Murderers as Informants." Congress found it appalling that the FBI let known mob murderers remain at large because they were snitching on their rival mafia counterparts. In Chapter Five of my book, I document how the toleration for informant wrongdoing is widespread and can worsen crime and insecurity in inner city communities.

Finally, the Texas story reminded me of Troy Smith. As part of his informant deal, Troy Smith had to produce six arrests of other people in order to avoid drug charges himself. When he tried to sell meth to another informant as part of his quota, he got busted. Because of a procedural mistake by his lawyer, Smith could not raise the "public authority" defense, i.e. the claim that the government authorized him to commit the crime. Smith is currently serving a 12-year sentence, arguably for doing exactly what the government told him to do. I tell this story not only because it seems ironic and unfair, but because the pervasive use of informants invites precisely this kind of debacle.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

In the News--Recantation

When a criminal informant recants his testimony after a defendant has already been convicted, it is typically very difficult for that defendant to get a new trial. This happens more often than you might think--informants change their stories all the time, but the rules of criminal procedure and habeas corpus make it very hard to upset the original conviction. Today's New York Times reports on Fernando Bermudez, a man who tried 11 times to get his 1992 murder conviction overturned after the main witness recanted. A new judge has finally held that he might be entitled to a new trial. Mr. Bermudez also has the good fortune to be represented by my exceptionally skilled former colleague Barry Pollack, partner at Miller Chevalier.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Pleading Guilty versus Going to Trial

Sometimes I will post about an aspect of what I call informant law - i.e. the legal rules and policies that govern the use of informants. An important but little-known fact about the rules of snitching: defendants who go to trial are constitutionally entitled to negative information about informants who might testify against them (usually referred to as impeachment or Giglio material), while defendants who plead guilty (approximately 95 percent of all felony defendants) are not entitled to this information.

Lets say Defendant Jane Smith is accused of dealing drugs, based on the say-so of criminal informant John Doe. If Smith goes to trial, the government is obligated to give her any material information in its possession regarding Doe’s credibility, including the rewards he got for cooperating against Smith, his prior convictions, instances of perjury or recantations, and things like that. The Supreme Court has held that this is necessary to ensure a fair process. But the Supreme Court also held in United States v. Ruiz that if Smith takes a plea, she has no right to see that information. This means she has to decide whether to plead guilty without knowing how credible or corrupt John Doe might be. She only gets to learn that information if she rolls the dice and goes to trial.

Ruiz is about what the U.S. Constitution requires--other rules may come into play. For example...

some states and districts demand more disclosure, and require the government to provide impeachment material to defendants to be considered during plea negotiations. Some federal prosecutorial offices provide informant impeachment material voluntarily as a matter of internal policy. But the bottom line is that, constitutionally speaking, they do not have to.

This rule has some significant consequences. One is that the government can insulate shady informants by offering defendant good deals. Thats what happened in Ruiz - the government offered Angela Ruiz a so-called fast track plea if she would waive her right to impeachment material about the snitch in her case. If a defendant is sufficiently scared of going to trial-maybe her lawyer doesn't have time or resources, or maybe she has a prior record and can't testify-she may take the deal to avoid a worse sentence.

More broadly, it means that the government can expect that in the vast majority of cases it will never have to disclose the deals it makes with its informants, or the kinds of people that it uses as informants, because over 90 percent of cases are resolved by plea. When defendants don't get to see this material, the public doesn't either.

This is a problematic way to run a criminal system that is ostensibly committed to transparency and public adjudications of guilt. When informant deals stay secret, the public loses sight of how police and prosecutors evaluate crime and impose punishment. Many criminal informants escape liability for very serious crimes - Ruiz makes it easier for the government to hide this fact. When information sources are shielded from scrutiny, moreover, we don't get to see how the government investigates crime or chooses its targets. These are important aspects of criminal justice, but the nature of snitching rules like the Ruiz decision tends to erase them from public view.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Professional Prison Snitch Ring

I recommend this recent feature article in Reason Magazine by Radley Balko, entitled Guilty Before Proven Innocent. It tells the mind-blowing story of an innocent family in Louisiana, Ann Colomb and her three sons, who were wrongfully convicted of drug trafficking based on the testimony of numerous prison snitches. The informants were part of an information-selling network inside the federal prison, in which inmates purchased files and photographs to help them fabricate testimony which they then marketed to prosecutors in order to get sentence reductions. A bunch of inmates got hold of the Colomb file, and told prosecutors that they would testify against the family. If it werent for a few chance encounters that revealed the scam, the Colomb family would still be in federal prison.

I like this story because it highlights some classic problems with criminal informants. It also illustrates the scale of the phenomenon--and its potential for massive miscarriages of justice-- in ways that may be surprising to people unfamiliar with the daily workings of the criminal process.

As the story illustrates, criminal informants are a primary (and infamous) source of wrongful convictions. Check out the link to the Northwestern University Law School report entitled The Snitch System on the left. Second, there are a lot of them: the government planned to use dozens of prison snitches against the Colomb family, and presiding Judge Tucker Melancon indicated that the phenomenon was pervasive. Third, prosecutors rely heavily on them even when the government should be suspicious. The prosecutor in the Colomb case did not appear to know that his prison snitch witnesses were selling information to each other and then lying about it; rather, he took them at their word even though he knew they had massive incentives to lie. Perhaps most importantly, the story shows how snitching has become commonly understood as a way for suspects and inmates to game the system. The Louisiana snitch ring sold information for thousands of dollars inside and outside the prison. This business plan was a response to a central fact about the U.S. criminal process--that information and leniency are traded freely between offenders and the government without rigorous fact-checking. This case just took it to a new level.

Welcome to Snitching Blog

snitching = when police or prosecutors offer lenience to criminal suspects in exchange for information or cooperation
Snitching Blog is about a part of our criminal system that most people know little or nothing about: criminal informants, or snitches. At any given moment, thousands of informants are trying to work off their own criminal liability by giving information to the government. These informants may be in court, in prison, on the street, or in the workplace. Police and prosecutors often rely heavily on information obtained from snitches--especially in drug enforcement but also in white collar crime, organized crime, and terrorism investigations. In fact, it is impossible to fully understand the U.S. legal system without understanding snitching. Nevertheless, there is very little public information available about this important public policy. That's where Snitching Blog comes in.

This blog does a bunch of things. It discusses how snitching works--on paper and in reality. It provides resources to individuals, lawyers, law enforcment, and legislators--check out the links on the left. It covers current events and news stories. And it lets you share your own experiences by posting a "Testimonial"--click on the link at the right.

Please look around. Suggestions are welcome.