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August 14, 2009

Posted by Alexandra Natapoff at 10:03 AM

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.

Comments

"Smith is currently serving a 12-year sentence, arguably for doing exactly what the government told him to do."


standard government efficiency. not really that surprising in a country where madoff gets jail and chris dodd gets a paycheck.

Welcome, Alexandra. Love your blog so far, and I look forward to reading regularly. Do you have plans to add an RSS feed? I do most of my blog reading in Google Reader, so a feed here would help me keep up with your posts.

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.

The wages of snitching.I wish he had gotten life.

Hmmm, don't look to the FBI but look to the judicial system instead...

Judges could put a stop to the FBI's practices in heart beat IF they wanted to...

This is a good start to your blog. Please keep it up. I'm looking forward to your book and more postings.

juandos,

I disagree with your unelaborated upon assertion that "judges could put a stop to FBI [or other law enforcement agencies'] practices in a heartbeat if they wanted to."

The point often is precisely that many practices are things that never come withing court knowledge let alone potential court oversight. Judges do not have jurisdiction to order executive branc agencies to follow certain prqactices or stop others just because they don't like them.

First, to issue an order, a judge must have a case in controversy before him challenging a practice. Second, there must be evidence presented both as to the nature of a practice and its existence. Third, a court would have to find the practice violated a constitutional, statutory or regulatory enactment.

One branch of government does not have plenary power to tell a different branc how to do or not do its job.

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Snitching by Alexandra Natapoff A Barnes & Noble Best Pick of 2009

2010 ABA Silver Gavel Award Honorable Mention for Books
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