• 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)

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Violent robber-snitch formed new home invasion gang

Thanks to Grits for Breakfast for this story from the Dallas Morning News:
A confessed robber out on bond after he masterminded a series of violent North Texas home invasions apparently formed a new gang and went right back to his old ways.
In February 2008, William Sedric Autrey reached a plea deal with prosecutors and agreed to work as an undercover informant against others in a gang believed responsible for dozens of home invasions and burglaries between 2005 and 2008.
He was out on bond for almost two years, after negotiating a plea deal to ensure he would not spend more than 15 years behind bars. Authorities say that while he was free, Autrey, 41, formed a new gang that burst into houses, exchanged gunfire with a Dallas homeowner and burglarized and robbed almost two dozen homes around the area since November.
By now the story of criminal informants who continue to commit crimes while working for the government is depressingly familiar news; see, for example, these posts: Killer FBI Informant, and House of Death informant and Committing Crime While Working for the Government. Ongoing crime is an inherent feature of the snitching phenomenon, at least in the U.S. (some countries formally restrict their governments' authority to tolerate informant crime, but the U.S. is not yet one of them.) Accordingly, we need to figure out whether snitching is worth it. Do we solve more crimes than we permit with these deals? When criminal informants re-offend, can we tell the victims that their suffering produced a greater good? In Dallas, the prosecutor said that Autrey "'cooperated and helped get indictments on cases that involved hundreds of thousands of dollars' in mortgage fraud, student loan fraud and other white-collar crimes. He also said that Autrey continued to work with authorities on violent crimes, including some home invasion robberies committed by other people." Is that worth the dozens of robberies that Autrey continued to commit, including one in which robbers shot at a homeowner, and another in which they tied up a 15-year-old girl?

We can't have a full public debate about these questions because the government doesn't produce the data--we don't know how many crimes informants commit and solve. This is a central reason why I argue that data collection and transparency reforms are so fundamental. As I wrote in the book's introduction:
"The most important [snitching reform] is the most difficult: changing the culture of secrecy and deregulation that permits informants and officials alike to bend rules, evade accountability, and operate in secret. It is this culture that fosters snitching's worst dangers: wrongful convictions, unchecked criminal behavior, official corruption, public deception, and the weakened legitimacy of the criminal process in the eyes of its constituents. It is also the feature that prevents us from addressing the ultimate public policy questions with clarity. The system currently handles the problem by asking us to accept on faith that unregulated snitching is worth its risks, without either demonstrating its full benefits or revealing its true costs. For a public policy of this far-reaching importance, such faith is not enough."