Friday, July 30, 2010

Rich on "stop snitching"

Before I get started, I'd like to thank Alexandra Natapoff for the opportunity to contribute to this blog. I look forward to providing a different and (hopefully) interesting take on the problems and contradictions that arise from law enforcement's dependence on, and society's complicated relationship with, criminal informants.

So, let's start with one of the contradictions:

When newspaper reporters and columnists write about informants outside the context of wrongful convictions, the tone tends to be one-note, excoriating "stop snitching" culture. A recent editorial by Bill Maxwell, a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times, is typical. (A couple of similar recent articles or columns are here and here.) Criticizing the black community in Tampa Bay for ostracizing three women who helped two police officers after they had been shot, he also takes on the "snitching ethos":
If we do not call the police, we deserve the mayhem and dysfunction we suffer. When we conceal the identity of a murderer, we endanger everyone. When we turn our backs on drug deals near our homes, we cheapen the rule of law and destroy social values. In addition to its self-destructiveness, the snitching ethos alienates us from others, putting us at odds with normal behavior.
Maxwell's points generally are well-taken, if not particularly novel.

But another recent column also caught my eye. This one, by Marc Hansen of the Des Moines Register, bears the headline, "Iowan mails Lefty's arm back to bar, won't snitch on thief." Far less gruesome than it sounds, the story involves the theft of a mannequin's left arm from a bar in San Francisco and its subsequent return by Doug Kintzle, a Des Moines resident who had it in his basement. Hansen explains that though Kintzle knows who stole the arm, the culprit is part of his cycling group, and Kintzle refuses to "snitch." As Hansen says, "you have to respect that." And I think he's right: most people would have no problem with Kintzle staying mum and protecting his friend.

But why is the Maxwell's "snitching ethos" bad, and Kintzle's refusal to "snitch" good? Despite the presence of a stolen plastic arm, I ask the question non-facetiously: in both cases we're talking about crimes that the police can't solve without an informant's help, yet in one case refusing to snitch is reprehensible and in the other it's respectable.

(posted by Michael Rich)

Of course, there are numerous differences that may help explain the discrepancy, and prime among them is the relative severity of the crimes: murder in one case, and the theft of a piece of a plastic mannequin in the other. But Maxwell also argues that the failure to report drug dealing "cheapen[s] the rule of law and destroy[s] social values." Isn't drug dealing, arguably a malum prohibitum crime, less morally culpable than stealing? Doesn't Kintzle also cheapen the rule of law by refusing to inform on the thief? Isn't "do not steal" an important social value?

Or is the critical difference that Kintzle is refusing to snitch on a member of his cycling group and we respect the loyalty of those who bicycle together more than we do loyalties among neighborhood members? Or is it that petty theft within cycling groups is unlikely to foment more crime, while drug dealing will? Or that drug dealers tend to be poorer than cyclists? Or that Maxwell is talking about black communities and cycling is largely a sport enjoyed by whites?

Most likely, it's a combination of some or all of these considerations that makes us comfortable with Kintzle's silence and generally agree with Maxwell. But the question of where the line is drawn between bad snitching and good informing is infrequently considered and one that policymakers need to keep in mind when they tailor policies to encourage cooperation with the police.

Guest blogger Professor Michael Rich

I am very pleased to introduce Snitching Blog's first guest blogger: Professor Michael Rich formerly at Capital University Law School and recently moved to Elon University School of Law. Professor Rich has written about the use of informants as a potential violation of the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibits involuntary servitude. From the abstract:
Though active informants cooperate for many reasons, most assist the police out of fear that if they refuse, they will be subject to criminal prosecution or more severe punishment. This Article argues that by compelling these "coerced informants" to work under such a threat, the government violates the Thirteenth Amendment's prohibition on involuntary servitude. As a doctrinal matter, compelling coerced informants to serve under threat of criminal sanction fits the Thirteenth Amendment's definition of involuntary servitude. Moreover, the use of coerced informants offends the free labor principles that animated the passage and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment and underlie the Supreme Court's Thirteenth Amendment jurisprudence.
Link to article here: Coerced Informants and Thirteenth Amendment Limitations on the Police-Informant Relationship, 50 Santa Clara L. Rev. 681 (2010). Professor Rich will be here throughout August.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Huffington Post on the dangers of being a snitch

Cameron Douglas (actor Michael's Douglas's son) got a lot of press for his drug conviction and his cooperation with the government, which apparently cut his ten year sentence in half. See also NY Post story here: Douglas ratted on dealers. Now the Huffington Post points out that as an acknowledged informant, Douglas "is likely to face a very tough time in prison." From Anthony Papa's (Drug Policy Alliance) post:
From my experience as someone who served 12 years in New York's Sing Sing state prison -- one of the most dangerous prisons in America -- I know that Cameron Douglas is in a world of trouble. Once a prisoner is labeled as a "snitch," their life in prison suddenly changes and is in immediate danger. In prison a snitch is frowned upon and is at the bottom of the hierarchy of prison life. Until this point, it seemed that Douglas was living a pretty comfortable life in the camp at Lewisberg. Minimum security institutions have dormitory housing, a relatively low staff-to-inmate ratio, and limited or no perimeter fencing. Douglas's status will likely change as soon as his life is threatened. Once this happens, his entire world will turn upside down, and he will be transferred to protective custody.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Another jailhouse snitch drives a homicide investigation

Today's Akron Beacon Journal reports on new developments in the Neal Rankin murder case: "DNA results may give inmate a new trial." The police had a lot of trouble identifying a suspect back in 1993--according to the commander of the homicide unit, they had "45 suspects the first day," and murder charges were brought and then dropped against several defendants. Finally, over a year after the murder, the government charged Dewey Amos Jones with the crime based on an allegation from a jaihouse snitch that Jones had confessed to him. I include the story not only because it is yet another example of a shaky case built on compensated snitch testimony, but because it illustrates how powerful an informant's allegations can be. Here, a jailhouse snitch got authorities to focus on Jones long after the crime, and without any direct evidence of his guilt. Jones is represented by the Ohio Innocence Project.

Friday, July 16, 2010

"It's a matter of trust": Philly Inquirer editorial on citizen cooperation

From today's Philadelphia Inquirer:
It's no wonder that residents of some crime-infested Philadelphia neighborhoods are afraid to "snitch." How can they expect protection from police who are in bed with drug dealers? All the assurance in the world that three officers, indicted for scheming to steal a drug dealer's heroin and sell it, aren't representative of most Philadelphia cops leaves open the question of whether there are others like them. . . . A necessary ingredient in effectively fighting crime is the trust of the community officers are trying to protect. You can't have that when people believe cops are just crooks, too.
Rest of editorial here.