• 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

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Video-Taping Policing

A recent snitching-related phenomenon has seen citizens secretly recording police activity. Different types of recording devices have been used, from the omnipresent mobile phone, to cameras mounted in cars or, in a recent case filed in Maryland, a motorcycle helmet. The police, however, are fighting back: in Maryland, an officer caught on a tape posted on YouTube sued the arrestee under a wiretap statute for recording the encounter that led to the arrest.

While the judge ultimately threw out the case, the Maryland police are not alone in arresting individuals who record or watch them do their job. In fact, the subtext of a recent Supreme Court case, Devenpeck vs. Alford, 543 U.S. 146 (2004) concerned a police officer who (wrongfully) arrested a suspect for tape recording the arrest.

Citizens taping cops can fit the definition of snitching, if the citizen plans to use the tape to gain lenience or drop the charge. It also fits one scenario in which subjects have proved more willing to inform on lawbreakers: when the wrongdoer is a police officer.

Why do the police react so negatively to citizen video-taping? After all, the police themselves use dashboard-mounted cameras in police cars that capture traffic stops. In part, the police do so because they believe having an accurate record of the stop will most often support the officer's version of events and undermine some of the negative attitudes towards the police.

One reason might be that citizen-sponsored videotaping (as opposed to police-sponsored taping) is a direct challenge to police control and authority. Since much of the stop-snitching phenomenon is a reaction to community perceptions of antagonistic policing or forcible policing that distances the police from the community and uses criminal informants to target low level crimes, citizen videotaping is a means of redressing the balance, by creating a record of what the police, in fact, do.

Police overreaction to citizen videotaping is best understood as a demand for a display of respect for and deference to the police. It highlights the distinction between consensual policing, of the sort that treats citizens with respect as equals, and the sort of adversarial posture that relies on criminal informants to the detriment of communication and community relations.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mandatory Time Off for Informants in Protective Custody?

Here's a snitching development from New South Wales, in Australia:

"The New South Wales Government says criminals who give evidence against other criminals will not automatically get reduced sentences because of the hardship they suffer in jail.

Attorney-General John Hatzistergos says they will get a discount for providing information to police but not an additional discount for the extra hardship they may suffer."

The New South Wales system gave two automatic discounts to jailhouse informants. These might be characterized as the direct and collateral benefits for informing (on the lines of direct and collateral penalties at sentencing). The direct benefit was time off for the nature and quality of the information given; the collateral benefit was to compensate them for hardships suffered through requiring protective custody. Like direct and collateral penalties, one is clearly related to the criminal's act (in the case of punishment, the crime; in the case of informing, cooperation with the government); another is regarded as regulatory in nature. In the case of punishment, there is a whole range of collateral penalties, ranging from losing the right to vote, to deportation (for eligible foreign nationals), to losing public housing, health care or welfare eligibility. In the case of informing, New South Wales treats protective custody as regulatory, and so as a matter of ensuring safety and security within prisons, rather than as an additional punishment consequent to informing.

It is unlikely that the American system would treat this type of direct/collateral benefit as legally significant. After all, the decision to reward the informant with some sentencing recommendation is well within the discretion of the prosecutor. And it's well established that decisions regarding protective custody are regulatory rather than punitive. But New South Wales apparently had a mandatory award of time off for informants for protective custody. Apparently, the state’s rethinking of that policy reflects a tough on crime attitude on the part of prosecutors that is now catching up on prison informants.

Huffington Post on the Rachel Hoffman Story

Huffington Post has this story on the tragic death of Rachel Hoffman -- Lethal Sting: How the War on Drugs Killed a College Student.Journalist Vince Beiser unearths new details about the young woman who became a drug informant in Tallahassee and was killed during a sting. Her death led to the passage of important legislation in Florida last year, which requires new police guidelines for the creation of informants--previous post here.

"America's most successful stop snitchin' campaign"

Another excellent piece from journalist Radley Balko at American's Most Successful Stop Snitchin' Campaign. This piece elaborates on the subject of Eric Miller's last post, chronicling the retaliation and punishment openly inflicted on police officers who have broken the code of silence and reported official wrongdoing in cities such as Kansas City, New York, and Albuquerque. From the article:
In his book Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper explains the implicit threats that make the Blue Wall so successful:
"You have to rely on your fellow officers to back you. A cop with a reputation as a snitch is one vulnerable police officer, likely to find his peers slow to respond to requests for backup-if they show up at all. A snitch is subject to social snubbing. Or malicious mischief, or sabotage...The peer pressure is childish and churlish, but it's real. Few cops can stand up to it."
Which makes it all the more important that police administrators and political leaders support and protect the cops who do. The most disturbing aspect of these stories is not that there are bad cops in Kansas City, New York, and Albuquerque. It's not even that other cops covered for them, or that police unions have institutionalized the protection of bad cops. The most disturbing part of these cases is that the cover-up and retaliation extend all the way to the top of the chain of command--and that so far there has been no action, or even condemnation, from the elected officials who are supposed to hold police leaders accountable.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Police as Snitches

NPR’s "This American Life" recently posted an interview with NYPD police officer Adrian Schoolcraft, who secretly recorded conversations at Bedford-Stuyvesant's 81st Precinct. Schoolcraft’s recordings were originally published by the Village Voice, and became the subject of a five-part expose of the Bed-Stuy police's practices. The Schoolcraft tapes revealed the extent to which modern policing is driven by a series of arrest quotas rather than increasing the quality of life for the residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Perversely, the 81st Precinct's overzealous attention to the reported crime figures drove up arrests for minor crime, at the same time as driving down charges for major crimes. Put differently, the emphasis was on both the number of arrests made (busywork for the police) while at the same time proclaiming that serious crime rates were down (so reclassifying serious crimes as less severe, so as to undercut fear of crime).

Schoolcraft is a snitch: he broke the police's own stop snitching code, the Blue Line of silence. Rarely mentioned in the snitching debates is that the police have, and celebrate, their own stop snitching code, one that is expressly designed to hide illegal or quasi-illegal activities from public scrutiny. The Blue Line is in some ways disturbingly thick: it serves not only to separate but also to distance the police from the rest of the public. The Blue Line separates the police from the public by reinforcing negative police stereotypes of the people with whom they interact on a daily basis. The Blue Line distances the police from the public by turning a blind eye to forcible and arbitrary displays of authority, of the sort that, as demonstrated in the "This American Life" interview, delegitimize the police in the eyes of the public.

Dr. Rick Frei's "Snitching Study," which I blogged about earlier in the week, produced an interesting statistic that is relevant here: 60% of interviewees considered it permissible to snitch on cops. That statistic is borne out, anecdotally at least, by Schoolcraft's experience: "This American Life" revealed that Bed-Stuy residents were willing to tell him who were the cops engaged in improper policing practices. Of course, the Blue Line at the same time discounts and disvalues citizen reports on the police, while possessing the information that confirms such reports, and while enforcing police refusal to snitch on other police officers.

The impact of Schoolcraft's revelations should not be understated. First, they bolster some statistical data from a report entitled "New York City Police Department's 'Stop and Frisk' Practices," also known as the Spitzer Report. That report found that only 61 percent of police stops cited constitutionally adequate grounds for a stop-and-frisk, with 39 percent adducing constitutionally insufficient or indeterminate grounds. Schoolcraft's tapes suggest that the police engaged in a stop first, find probable cause (or reasonable suspicion) later policy, applied randomly to the Bed-Stuy residents.

A second feature of Schoolcraft's recording campaign is to note that while police have become increasingly fond of police-initiated recordings, e.g., car mounted cameras, they have become increasingly suspicious of citizen-initiated recordings, using mobile phones. Here again, the citizenry undermine and question police authoritarianism through the use of camera phones to challenge, or snitch on, police-citizen encounters. There is currently a lawsuit pending in Maryland, where an officer is suing for invasion of privacy a citizen who recorded a police stop and snitched.

The authoritarian element underlying both policing by numbers and the Blue Line of silence is precisely the authoritarianism necessary for the sort of policing that relies upon snitches and confessions. Schoolcraft, and other "Good Cops" like him (to use the title of a book by David Harris) do not engage in forcible policing, but consensual policing. They do not need to use their cuffs to establish their authority. Instead of driving away all sources of information except those willing to talk for a price, policing could develop relations by engaging with the people they police. Schoolcraft's recording suggests that consensual policing has fallen victim to policing by numbers, and at least in the 81st Precinct, officers were encouraged to cut corners but not snitch on each other at the same time they demand that the citizens they mistreated act as snitches.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010

My student, Sam Dickhut, is writing a great paper on the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 that incidentally raises an interesting issue about snitching. His paper, and the Act itself, responds to a recent Amnesty International study finding that a disproportionate number of rapes (two-and-a-half times the non-native population) are perpetuated against the American Indian and Alaskan Native communities of the United States. Almost one third of the rapes are committed by non-Native American visitors on tribal lands, and these stranger rapes are disproportionately likely to be violent.

A central contributing factor, Sam argues, is the case of Oliphant v Suquamish Indian Tribe, 435 U.S. 190, 193 (1978), which holds that tribal courts do not have jurisdiction over non-Indians. Accordingly, rapes must be investigated and prosecuted by the federal government. And the government faces two, snitching-related obstacles.

The first obstacle is the difficulty of obtaining information from the white communities abutting tribal lands, given variety of racial and cultural stereotypes that are applied to the rape victims. Not only are such communities unwilling to snitch on the perpetrators of sexual crimes, they dominate the jury pools, rendering it difficult to prosecute such cases to a conviction.

The second obstacle is the historically fraught relationship between the Native population and the government. Lacking specific training to deal with the cultural norms and practices that they will encounter on tribal lands, and residing outside the community, investigators and prosecutors often lack the sort of relationship with tribal officers or members, and so cannot generate the information necessary to prosecute such cases.

The Tribal Law and Order Act proposes to solve the problem of rape prosecutions, in part by increasing the law enforcement competence of the currently underfunded and under-trained tribal officers, as well as granting tribal courts additional sentencing powers. But treating the problem as one of tribal enforcement rather than federal enforcement perpetuates the idea that this is a tribal problem, rather than a federal one.

Instead, the problem of snitching should be addressed head on as the Indian Law Commission, which was created by the Act, conducts hearings over the next three years in order to develop proposals for further legislation. Alexandra Natapoff's work on snitching, especially when read against the background of David Harris's "Good Cops," suggests the problem is not communities' refusal to cooperate with the police, but the police's lack of interest or training in dealing with specific communities in a consistently engaged and thoroughgoing manner. The Tribal Law and Order Act provides an amazing opportunity for the federal government, through the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office, to right current injustices as well as historical wrongs by engaging in the sort of community outreach to develop the sort of partnerships productive of understanding and trust in the target communities that stop snitching advocates consistently recommend. That work is often hard, and faces difficult cultural obstacles. But it produces the sort of policing that is the mark of the good cop, and in this case could have a major social and cultural impact.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Snitching Study

Dr. Rick Frei, a professor at the Community College of Philadelphia, recently conducted a study ("The Snitching Study") of over 1,500 community college students to determine whether there was widespread agreement among the students as to the definition of "snitching," and what factors would increase or decrease the likelihood that a student would "snitch" on someone they knew to have committed a crime. Professor Frei also testified before the United States Senate’s Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs as to the result of his survey.

The study confirmed that most students (82.6%) regarded "ratting on someone else to get out of a crime" as snitching; whereas less than a third (28.6%) regarded "picking a suspect out of a police lineup" as snitching. While that last figure still seems higher than optimal, it is perhaps explained by another of the survey’s findings, that "half the sample said they did not trust the police," even though 60% of respondents claimed to know a police officer personally.

Two factors in particular stood out for me. First was that "[t]he more the situation required the person to take the initiative … the more likely it was to be viewed as snitching." (Dr. Frei’s Testimony before the Subcommittee). Least likely to be viewed as snitching (16%) was '[a]nswering questions from the police if you are at the scene of the crime." Here, the student’s definition of snitching seemed to track the ACLU's distinction between acting as an informant and acting as a witness. That may have important ramifications for the manner in which the police engage in gathering evidence from people with knowledge of criminal activity.

The second striking factor from the study was that "[n]early half of all students said that they would be more likely to cooperate if there was someone besides the police to which they could report crimes." This factor appears to bolster the idea that the students surveyed tend to distrust the police, or perhaps what the police would do with the information — many students were less likely to snitch if the crime was non-violent. One obvious response would be to set up tipster hotlines that are not directly identified with the police, and which individuals reporting crimes could use to report incidents. Another way to approach the same problem may be to make such tipster hotlines anonymous. Anonymity impacts the most important factor inhibiting the students from acting as informants: almost thirty percent of students said they would be less likely to snitch if it would affect their reputation in the community. There are some worrying practical and legal problems with hotlines, however, and in particular anonymous tips, that I shall consider in a later post.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Massachusetts Supreme Court disapproves of prosecutorial rewards to witnesses

Two witnesses in Wayne Miranda's murder trial received $2000 each from the Chamber of Commerce because their testimony assisted in producing a guilty verdict. As the Boston Globe writes, the Massachusetts Supreme Court, while approving such witness reward programs generally, has ruled that prosecutors cannot participate in them or help witnesses get rewards when those rewards are contingent on convictions. Commonwealth v. Wayne Miranda, SJC-10568. From the Court's opinion:
We recognize that, to prove the crime charged, prosecutors often need to procure the cooperation and truthful information or testimony of reluctant witnesses. The interests of justice, however, are not well served when a witness's reward is contingent on the conviction of a defendant, rather than the provision of truthful information or testimony.
While the Massachusetts Supreme Court should be lauded for its ethical concern, its decision is somewhat ironic. Prosecutors routinely provide far greater benefits to criminal informant witnesses, in the form of liberty and leniency, than a few thousand dollars. In many jurisdictions, these rewards can be contigent on conviction. And even when the rewards are not expressly contingent on conviction, every attorney and informant knows that a witness in a successful conviction is more likely to get rewarded.
This is why Professor George Harris [author of Testimony for Sale: The Law and Ethics of Snitches and Experts, 28 Pepp. L. Rev. 1 (2000)], and I have recommended leveling the playing field by creating defense informants, i.e. rewards for informants who come forward with information that might help the defense rather than the prosecution. As it currently stands, an offender with information helpful to the defense cannot expect any benefits--only the government can give those. This lopsided arrangement is, as the Massachusetts Supreme Court pointed out, not in the interests of accuracy or justice.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Texas requires corroboration for informant witnesses

Perhaps as a result of these sorts of debacles, Infamous fake drug scandal in Dallas, Of Experts and Snitches, Texas has passed some good corroboration legislation restricting the use of drug informants and jailhouse snitches. Last year, it passed this law requiring corroboration for jailhouse snitches:
A defendant may not be convicted of an offense on the testimony of a person to whom the defendant made a statement against the defendant's interest during a time when the person was imprisoned or confined in the same correctional facility as the defendant unless the testimony is corroborated by other evidence tending to connect the defendant with the offense committed. Tex. Code. Crim. Pro. art. 38-075
Article 38-141 similarly requires corroboration before a drug informant can testify. These are steps in the right direction, although they are only partial solutions to the lying snitch problem. The key to informant unreliability is not whether the informant is involved in drugs or in jail, but whether he expects a benefit and therefore has a motivation to lie. Nebraska takes the right approach in this regard by defining "informant" to include "any criminal suspect, whether or not he is detained or incarcerated, who received a deal, promise, inducement or benefit." Neb. Rev. Stat. 29-1929. In defining informant broadly, the Nebraska legislature reasoned that "there is a compelling state interest in providing safeguards against the admission of testimony the reliability of which may be or has been compromised through improper inducements."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Welcome to Professor Eric Miller

I'm so pleased to introduce guest blogger Professor Eric Miller, from St. Louis University School of Law. His scholarship focuses on policing, race, and drug enforcement--key issues in the informant policy world. Readers may be particularly interested in this piece: Role-Based Policing: Restraining Police Conduct "Outside the Legitimate Investigative Sphere," 94 Cal. L. Rev. 617 (2006), in which Professor Miller thinks about the many informal ways that police interact with suspects and citizens. He'll be with us for October.

Guest Blogger Professor Eric J. Miller

My thanks to Alexandra Natapoff for the opportunity to contribute to this blog. Like many folks thinking about the complex range of social attitudes to snitching, I have been deeply influenced by Alexandra's writing on the subject, and in particular, her article "Snitching: The Institutional and Communal Consequences." That being said, while I share her focus on the criminal aspects of snitching, I'd also like to throw in some examples from time to time that exhibit the breadth of snitching depictions in our culture. So I'll begin with a slightly lengthy post to set out my general take on snitching.

Think, for example of the popular AMC series Mad Men, set in a Madison Avenue advertising firm during the 1960s, as an extended meditation on the disvalue of snitching. Each of the central characters has a secret, many of them criminal or quasi-criminal (at the time), and none more so than the hero of the piece, Don Draper, who is a deserter from the Army during the Korean War living under an assumed identity. Yet at pivotal moments throughout the four seasons of Mad Men, other characters have found out Don's secret and refused to snitch. I don't think it too much of a stretch to suggest that one of the major attractions of the series is precisely our interest in seeing if someone will snitch on Don. If this is a plausible characterization of Mad Men, then the show advances - and the audience’s response confirms - the value of not-snitching as a major part of our culture.

More strikingly, we tend to think that the folks who refuse to snitch - Don's ex-wife Betty Francis, Don's former boss and now partner, Bert Cooper, Don's colleague Pete Campbell, and so on - are doing the right thing. Why?

Two aspects of snitching (or informing or whistleblowing, to put it in neutral or even positive terms) are brought out by the series: first, snitching undermines trust and second, it can have very severe personal and social consequences.

Here I should issue a quick spoiler alert for those who haven't got to the latest episode from the current season, "Hands and Knees." That episode was all about the central issues of snitching: secrets and trust ("loyalty" as discussed on the Wall Street Journal's Mad Men blog, hosted by Walter Dellinger ). What stood out in the episode was the - at times odd - refusal of friends, colleagues, family, and even enemies (the categories are not mutually exclusive) to snitch on Don.

A central motivation of the characters in that episode was that the consequences of snitching fall not only on Don, but on each of them too. For example, Betty's new marriage has already hit some bumps, particularly in relation to her husband, Henry Francis's political ambitions. He may be unable to trust her if he finds out she married him wile knowing Don was a deserter. The consequences are perhaps even greater for the seedy Pete Campbell: if Pete snitches, Don will disappear, destroying the firm and Pete's fledgling career. Pete swallows the loss of his major client and, during a partner's meeting, sucks up Roger Sterling's vitriol to avoid snitching. Such deference makes economic sense: while taking a hit in the short term, Pete clearly hopes Don will bring in more money down the road.

But Pete's self interest also depends upon Don's loyalty: Pete trusts that Don will both remain Don Draper, the mercurial creative force that drives the profits, and remain at the firm. For Betty, too, there is a need to maintain trust if life is to continue uninterrupted. The question the Federal Agents ask her regards Don's loyalty: is he generally someone in which she (and the nation) should place its trust. So long as she can trust him to remain Don, her marriage is secure.

So how does all this relate to police and policing? The point is that snitching - which Alexandra defines as the "very specific law enforcement practice of rewarding informants by forgiving them their crimes" - operates against a social background of trust-based moral values and self-interested calculations of profit, loss, and personal security. Snitching eviscerates trust, and while it may increase the security or profitability of discrete individuals in the course of what Alexandra calls the "information-liability exchange between informants and the government," it may threaten the security or profitability of the group as a whole.
In the case of Mad Men, the relevant group is Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (the advertising firm at the heart of the story) along with Betty's family life. But in the real world, the relevant groups include fragile communities of families and friends, often living in economically and legally equivocal circumstances. We easily empathize with the rich, suave, middle-class, white deserter Don Draper (and are encouraged to do so by the writers); we may not so easily empathize with the poor, working-class, minorities who are often the subjects of diatribes about snitching (and are often encouraged by this in media depictions of criminals and anti-snitching).

Yet anti-snitching may seek to preserve the interests of the group over the interests of the individual - particularly when, as Alexandra points out in her great article, the snitches are not usually the innocent bystanders or victims of crime, but its perpetrators. The police must be trusted to do the right thing and protect the community’s security: if the snitches are themselves perceived as enemies of the community, or the consequences as socially destructive, then anti-snitching makes good moral and practical (prudential) sense. While I am not suggesting that snitching is always morally or prudentially justified, I am endorsing the thought that the picture is not so simple as the media often portrays it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A rare rebuke to the government

Today's New York Times opines about the FBI's sordid 15-year history of covering up for two of its top informants, James "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen "the Rifleman" Flemmi. The government's mishandling of these two seasoned criminals has generated numerous criminal cases, law suits, and a scathing 2004 Congressional inquiry entitled "Everything Secret Degenerates: The FBI's Use of Murderers as Informants." In this latest episode, last week Judge William Young ordered the U.S. Department of Justice to compensate the families of two Flemmi/Bulger murder victims because of how government lawyers had "bullied and maligned" the families during litigation.