• 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

Friday, November 11, 2011


I started Snitching Blog in 2009. Since then, many lawyers, government officials, journalists and parents have told me that the blog has been helpful. I have therefore expanded the blog to include a new resource website with sections devoted to litigation, legislation, families & youth, and research materials. The site provides overviews of major issues, with cases, motions, and model legislation that can be downloaded. It describes all recent federal legislation pertaining to informants, with links to state legislation as well. It also lists dozens of books, articles, and reports about criminal informant use. Snitching Blog will continue; the resource website is for those who want to learn, work, or write in more depth about these issues. The address is link is to the left. Please visit!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

NYT: Numerous Mexican drug informants benefit U.S. law enforcement

The New York Times features a story this week on the expanding recruitment and use of Mexican drug informants: U.S. Agencies Infiltrating Drug Cartels Across Mexico. The story describes American law enforcement as having "significantly built up networks of Mexican informants" and focuses on the substantial benefits that such criminal informants can provide. For example:
Informants have helped Mexican authorities capture or kill about two dozen high-ranking and midlevel drug traffickers, and sometimes have given American counternarcotics agents access to the top leaders of the cartels they are trying to dismantle.
The U.S. also learned of a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador through one of those DEA-developed informants. See Huffington Post: Iran Plot to Assassinate Saudi Ambassador Foiled by DOJ Sting.
The Times story notes that informants can also give rise to "complicated ethical issues," including the fact that informants are typically working off their own crimes. Last year, NPR and Primetime ran stories illustrating the serious criminality that such informants may engage in, even while working for the government: NPR series on House of Death informant and Primetime: U.S. Customs authorizes informant to import cocaine.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Congressman Lynch introduces informant legislation

In the wake of new revelations about FBI informant crimes, U.S. Representative Stephen F. Lynch (D-MA) has introduced important new legislation that would require federal investigative agencies to report their informants' serious crimes to Congress. H.R. 3228, The Confidential Informant Accountability Act, would require the FBI, the DEA, Secret Service, ICE and ATF to report every six months to Congress all "serious crimes" committed by their informants, whether or not those crimes were authorized. "Serious crime" is defined as any serious violent felony, any serious drug crime, or any crime of racketeering, bribery, child pornography, obstruction of justice, or perjury. The bill prohibits the disclosure of informant names, control numbers, or any other personal information that might permit them to be identified. Under the U.S. Attorney General's Guidelines, the FBI is already required to disclose its informants' crimes to federal prosecutors.

The bill would also help the families of two men who were killed in connection with FBI informant Whitey Bulger to recover damages from the FBI. For more background, see these stories in the Boston Globe: Bill would aid kin of two slain men, and Pants on Fire. Full disclosure: I provided information to Congressman Lynch's office in support of this bill and I am strongly in favor of the effort.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

MS-13 informant convicted of lying to prosecutors

Follow up to this post: A Rat's Life: MS-13 Informants Run Wild. In a rare turnaround, the government has prosecuted its own informant for lying to prosecutors about murders he previously committed. Roberto Acosta now faces up to five years; he argues that he was the government's main source for its case against MS-13 and without him they wouldn't have been able to get the numerous convictions they did. SF Weekly blog postings here: Feds Want Maximum Prison Time for Roberto Acosta, MS-13 Informant Who Lied and Roberto Acosta, MS-13 Informant Convicted of Lying, Wants Out of Jail

9th Circuit clarifies DEA disclosure obligations under FOIA

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) empowers individual requestors to compel the government to disclose its records. Various exceptions permit the government to withhold certain records regarding informants, but the Ninth Circuit recently explained some limits to those exceptions. In Pickard v. Dep't of Justice, 2011 WL 3134505 (9th Cir., July 27, 2011), William Pickard filed a FOIA request with the DEA to get records regarding Gordon Todd Skinner, a DEA informant. The DEA denied his request by submitting a so-called "Glomar response" in which it neither officially confirmed nor denied the existence of Skinner as an informant. The 9th Circuit held that the DEA in effect had already "officially confirmed" Skinner as a confidential informant by eliciting testimony about and from him in open court at Pickard's trial, and that therefore the DEA could not avoid the FOIA request in that manner. In other words, once the government relies on an informant--either through an agent's testimony at trial regarding that informant or by using the informant as a witness--it cannot subsequently block a FOIA request by refusing to acknowledge the existence of the informant. This does not mean that the DEA necessarily has to produce records regarding its informants; it does mean, however, that it has to acknowledge the existence of such records and identify the specific FOIA exceptions that might permit nondisclosure.

This is an important decision for a number of reasons. As Judge Wallace explains in his concurrence, "the specific circumstances pursuant to which an informant's status is deemed "officially confirmed" is a matter of first impression and great importance." This is because the threshold question of whether a person is an informant at all may be a secret. Moreover, the decision clarifies that once the government decides to use an informant or his information at trial, it relinquishes much of its claim to confidentiality under FOIA. As Judge Wallace put it:
On the one hand, prosecutors frequently must rely on informants, who possess vital information, to prosecute dangerous criminals. On the other hand, the DEA and confidential informants have a different interest in secrecy and privacy than federal prosecutors. Yet, under the majority holding, an Assistant United States Attorney can eliminate that privacy interest by asking a single question--i.e., "Did you serve as a confidential informant"--in open court.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Not "simply a thank-you": another snitch-based exoneration in Los Angeles

After serving 17 years in prison for murder, Obie Anthony was exonerated last Friday. Anthony was represented by the Northern California Innocence Project and the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent. The judge found that the key witness--a pimp who received leniency as a result of his testimony against Anthony--lied, and that the government failed to disclose its deal with the informant. See L.A. Times story: Judge overturns murder conviction in 1994 slaying, and press release. Although the informant was promised a lighter sentence for testifying, prosecutor Scott Collins denied there was a deal. "It was not a deal in exchange for testimony," he said. "It was simply a thank-you for cooperating with the LAPD in a homicide investigation." Whether we label such arrangements a "thank you," deal, benefit, or something else, the fact remains that informants can reasonably expect to be rewarded for their testimony and are therefore incentivized to lie in ways that other witnesses are not.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mother Jones article on FBI terrorism informants

Here is an major article--"The Informants"--from Mother Jones and the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley on the FBI's use of informants in terrorism investigations. The year-long investigation examined 508 defendants in terrorism cases and found:
Nearly half the prosecutions involved the use of informants, many of them incentivized by money (operatives can be paid as much as $100,000 per assignment) or the need to work off criminal or immigration violations.
Sting operations resulted in prosecutions against 158 defendants. Of that total, 49 defendants participated in plots led by an agent provocateur--an FBI operative instigating terrorist action.
With three exceptions, all of the high-profile domestic terror plots of the last decade were actually FBI stings.
In many sting cases, key encounters between the informant and the target were not recorded--making it hard for defendants claiming entrapment to prove their case.
Terrorism-related charges are so difficult to beat in court, even when the evidence is thin, that defendants often don't risk a trial.

Friday, September 16, 2011

New York officers sued for failing to protect informant

The mother of a 20-year-old informant is suing two NYPD officers for failing to protect her son who was killed an hour and a half after he tipped off his handler to the location of some guns and drugs. Story here: Mom of slain informant Anthony Velez sues cops for failing to protect him. Such suits are rarely successful--courts have been reluctant to hold police accountable for the fate of their informants, even when the government contributes to the risk. See this post discussing the government's responsibility for the safety of its informants.

Court considers orthodox jewish rule against informing

The Talmudic laws of mesira prohibited Jews from informing against other Jews to non-Jewish authorities. This ancient "no snitching" rule is getting modern attention in the Los Angeles case of Rabbi Moshe Zigelman, an Orthodox jew who is refusing to testify against other Jewish suspects before a grand jury regarding alleged acts of tax fraud and money laudering. Story here: Jewish law goes to court: Mesira meets American justice. The story describes the Talmudic issue this way:
The concept of mesira, which literally means "delivery," dates back to periods when governments often were hostile to Jews and delivering a Jew to the authorities could lead to an injustice and even death. The rules of mesira still carry force within the Orthodox world, owing both to the inviolability of the concept's talmudic origins and the insular nature of many Orthodox communities. But they are also the subject of debate over whether the prohibition applies in a modern democracy that prides itself on due process and civil rights.
This dispute dovetails with a large issue in criminal justice: what happens to the force of criminal law when people believe it is unfair or leads to injustice? Professor Tom Tyler has written extensively about the fact that people are more likely to obey the law if they perceive it to be be fair and carried out through evenhanded and respectful procedures. See, e.g., Tom Tyler & Jeffrey Fagan, Legitimacy and Cooperation: Why Do People Help the Police Fight Crime in Their Communities?, 6 Ohio St. J. of Criminal Law 231 (2008).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

9th Circuit reverses death penalty because of lying informant

Yesterday in Sivak v. Hardison, the Ninth Circuit reversed yet another death sentence based on a lying jailhouse informant and the "State's knowing presentation of perjured inmate testimony." See also this post regarding Maxwell v. Roe. In Sivak, the prosecution used two jailhouse informants--Duane Grierson who described himself as a "chronic liar," and Jimmy Leytham, who falsely testified that he did not expect any rewards for his testimony. The Ninth Circuit concluded that these two unreliable witnesses provided the only direct evidence of Sivak's personal participation in the homicide and that therefore his capital sentencing violated due process.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Two films on domestic terrorism to air on PBS this week

PBS is airing two films--one tonight (Sept. 6) and one on Sept. 13--that address issues of domestic terrorism. Tonight's film -- "Better this World" -- is centrally about the role of political informants and entrapment.
Here are the official descriptions:
Better This World is the story of Bradley Crowder and David McKay, who were accused of intending to firebomb the 2008 Republican National Convention, is a dramatic tale of idealism, loyalty, crime and betrayal. The film follows the radicalization of these boyhood friends from Midland, Texas, under the tutelage of revolutionary activist Brandon Darby. The results: eight homemade bombs, multiple domestic terrorism charges and a high-stakes entrapment defense hinging on the actions of a controversial FBI informant. Better This World goes to the heart of the war on terror and its impact on civil liberties and political dissent in post-9/11 America. (90 minutes)
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front explores two of America's most pressing issues — environmentalism and terrorism — by lifting the veil on a radical environmental group the FBI calls America's "number one domestic terrorism threat." Daniel McGowan, a former member of the Earth Liberation Front, faces life in prison for two multimillion-dollar arsons against Oregon timber companies. What turned this working-class kid from Queens into an eco-warrior? Marshall Curry (Oscar®-nominated Street Fight, POV 2005) provides a nuanced and provocative account that is part coming-of-age story, part cautionary tale and part cops-and-robbers thriller. A co-production of ITVS. Winner of Best Documentary Editing Award, 2011 Sundance Film Festival. (90 minutes)
You can view the trailers here and here.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Report: Confidential Informants in New Jersey

It's rare to get this much data about informant practices. The New Jersey ACLU has released this important study of confidential informant practices across the state, based on scores of documents, cases, interviews, and government policies. According to the study,
The use of informants in drug law enforcement in New Jersey was found to be largely informal, undocumented, and unsupervised, and therefore vulnerable to error and corruption.
Among many findings, the study determined that informant use led to the following problems: manufactured criminal conduct, financial abuse, police coersion, harm to the informants, unreliability, misuse of juveniles, using "big fish" to catch "little fish," and the widespread violation of laws and guidelines. The study proposes reforms, and apparently a number of New Jersey counties have already responded with improved policies.

California passes jailhouse informant corroboration law

Governor Brown just signed important new legislation requiring corroboration before a jailhouse informant can testify. SF Chronicle story here: Law requires corroboration of cellmate's testimony. California joins Texas, Illinois, Massachusetts, Idaho, and several other states that require safeguards to counteract the well-documented unreliability of jailhouse snitch testimony. Here is part of the bill:
A jury or judge may not convict a defendant, find a special circumstance true, or use a fact in aggravation based on the uncorroborated testimony of an in-custody informant.
An "in custody informant" is defined as: "a person, other than a codefendant, percipient witness, accomplice, or coconspirator, whose testimony is based on statements allegedly made by the defendant while both the defendant and the informant were held in within a city or county jail, state penal institution, or correctional institution." Full disclosure: I testified in support of this legislation.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Omaha murder trial sheds light on FBI criminal informants

One informant, Jorge Palacios, was a gang member suspected in a Los Angeles murder, and accused, although never charged, in the rape of a 13-year-old girl. The FBI paid him more than $300,000 over five years to help with drug investigations. The other informant, Cesar Sanchez, was caught dealing drugs. In exchange for allowing his auto shop to be used as the site of drug deals for the FBI to monitor, he earned between $50,000 and $100,000 and avoided deportation. This glimpse of the kinds of deals that the government strikes with criminal informants was on display in Omaha last week in the murder trial of Robert Nave, accused of killing Sanchez. The story, FBI tells of informant shooting, also reveals how law enforcement can be reluctant to probe the criminal behavior of their informants:
FBI agent Greg Beninato, who was Palacios' handler in Omaha, testified that the FBI knew that Palacios was the suspected driver and accomplice in the 2004 drive-by shooting of a rival gang member in Los Angeles, a charge for which he was recently arrested. Beninato also acknowledged that agents had heard accusations that Palacios may have been involved in the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl, though no charges were brought. At one point, Riley [the defense attorney] asked Beninato whether he questioned Palacios about the two cases in order to decide whether to continue using him as an informant. "No," Beninato said.
"Why not?" Riley asked.
"It's a fine line between getting involved in someone else's investigation," Beninato said. "I wasn't going to question him without the (investigating agencies') permission or their request to do so."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

St. Petersburg police to review informant policies after officer scandal

Police have nearly unfettered discretion when creating and handling informants. That authority is coming under scrutiny in St. Petersburg, Florida, after the FBI arrested Detective Anthony Foster for extorting thousands of dollars in cash and goods from his informant. Story here: St. Petersburg police to re-evaluate policy on confidential informants:
The FBI's criminal complaint against Foster depicts a detective with near unlimited discretion in his dealings with an informant. Foster texted and called the informer to demand payments in cash or gifts, such as a widescreen TV, Nike shoes and groceries. The FBI alleges Foster made clear in recorded conversations that, in exchange, he would get a reduced sentence for the informant, who had been arrested on a grand theft charge in Hernando County. . . .
The criminal complaint against Foster suggests that there are either few regulations in place or that they aren't always followed. For example, in Foster's effort to convince the assistant state attorney that the informant had helped him solve some cases, Foster had his sergeant call to corroborate his informant's value. The supervisor, according to the complaint, told the assistant state attorney that the informer helped in major homicide cases and was "more of a benefit out of jail rather than in jail." Later, the sergeant faxed a list of four major investigations -- including a March 23 murder -- in which the informer assisted. When the FBI showed the informer the list, however, the informer denied assisting in any of those cases.

Reason Magazine special issue on the criminal system

Reason Magazine's July special issue is entitled "Criminal Injustice: Inside America's national disgrace." There is an article on the social costs of incarceration by Harvard sociologist Bruce Western, one on snitching entitled The Guilt Market by me, one on wrongful conviction by Radley Balko, and many others.

Monday, June 13, 2011

New documentary on domestic terrorism at NY and DC film festivals

A new award-winning documentary, "Better this World," is opening at film festivals in New York and Washington D.C. this month. The documentary follows the story of two young men and their relationship with an FBI informant that led to domestic terrorism charges in connection with the violence at the 2008 Republican National Convention. Schedules and ticketing information are below. Here's the synopsis:
The story of Bradley Crowder and David McKay, accused of intending to firebomb the 2008 Republican National Convention, is a tale of idealism, loyalty, crime and betrayal. Better This World follows the radicalization of these boyhood friends from Midland, Texas, under a revolutionary activist. The results: eight homemade bombs, multiple domestic terrorism charges and an entrapment defense hinging on a controversial FBI informant. The film goes to the heart of the war on terror and political dissent in post-9/11 America.
The film will have its New York premiere during the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 18, 19 and 20 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. Screening times: Saturday, June 18 at 6:30 p.m., Sunday, June 19 at 4:00 PM, Monday, June 20 at 4:00 PM. Tickets available here; trailer available here. The film will play in DC at Silverdocs Film Festival on June 22 & 23 in Silver Spring. Info here.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

NYU Law School report criticizes use of domestic terrorism informants

NYU Law School's Center for Human Rights and Global Justice has just released this report: Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the "Homegrown Threat" in the United States. The report examines three recent high profile domestic terrorism cases, in all of which informants played a central role, and argues that the use of compensated informants is creating the perception of a threat in U.S. Muslim communities where none may have existed before. From the executive summary:
Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has targeted Muslims in the United States by sending paid, untrained informants into mosques and Muslim communities. This practice has led to the prosecution of more than 200 individuals in terrorism-related cases. The government has touted these cases as successes in the so-called war against terrorism. However, in recent years, former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, local lawmakers, the media, the public, and community-based groups have begun questioning the legitimacy and efficacy of this practice, alleging that--in many instances--this type of policing, and the resulting prosecutions, constitute entrapment.
In the cases this Report examines, the government's informants held themselves out as Muslims and looked in particular to incite other Muslims to commit acts of violence. The government's informants introduced and aggressively pushed ideas about violent jihad and, moreover, actually encouraged the defendants to believe it was their duty to take action against the United States. In two of the three cases, the government relied on the defendants' vulnerabilities--poverty and youth, for example--in its inducement methods. In all three cases, the government selected or encouraged the proposed locations that the defendants would later be accused of argeting. In all three cases, the government also provided the defendants with, or encouraged the defendants to acquire, material evidence, such as weaponry or violent videos, which would later be used to convict them.
The report argues that the ways that the U.S. government uses informants to target Muslims threatens such basic legal principles as the right to a fair trial, the right to non-discrimination, and the rights to freedom of religion and expression. The report concludes with numerous policy recommendations.

New report on informants in Mississippi's criminal justice system

Justice Strategies and the ACLU have issued a highly critical report entitled: Numbers Game: The Vicious Cycle of Incarceration in Mississippi's Criminal Justice System. The report identifies three main problems in Mississippi: harsh sentencing policies, the misuse of multi-jurisdictional drug task forces, and the heavy recruitment and use of drug informants. The informant section analyzes numerous issues, including the widespread use of snitches in low income African American communities throughout Mississippi, and the social harm that this causes. For example:
A similar pattern and practice of using neighbors and friends as confidential informants is occurring in Flora, Mississippi, a tiny town of some 1,500 residents in Madison County--an area where complaints of racial profiling are common. Local police frequently threaten low-level drug users and sellers, coercing them to "snitch" on their friends.
Josephine, is a grandmother and lifelong Flora resident. According to her, Flora has never experienced a significant drug problem.... Josephine maintains that there are at least three known informants among the young people in Flora, and that many residents are frustrated with the local police because they are forcing young people to turn each other in. With considerable nostalgia, she recalls that people in Flora used to be very neighborly; they would talk about their families, joys and troubles, but now, "everybody don't fool with each other anymore. People keeping to themselves and not inviting each other in their homes." She says that people are afraid to go out at night. "Most young guys are scared to walk the streets at night because the cops mess with them." When her 20-year-old nephew does go out at night, she fears for his safety, not because of other Flora residents, but because of law enforcement agents: "Cops know how to scare you into snitching."
Some community residents view the use of CIs as not only tolerating criminal activity, but also enabling it--greatly diminishing the legitimacy of policing in their eyes. Another Mississippi mother, Sandra, says that her son's informer was allowed to continue his own criminal enterprise while turning in her son:
"They use people who already have a felony conviction and should be in prison, and give them 'paper time.' The week before they arrested my son, they search and arrest this guy. He had weed, crack and money on him. They gave it back to him and let him go on 'paper time' for snitching on my son."
The report concludes by proposing numerous reforms, including the establishment of an informant registry to keep track of people who are trying to work off their own criminal charges, a requirement that law enforcement report crimes committed by their informants, and a ban on using juvenile snitches.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

MIT Professor Gary Marx reviews "Snitching"

Gary T. Marx is professor emeritus of sociology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is author of the seminal book Undercover: Police Surveillance in America (1989) and he has written extensively on the new forms of surveillance, social control across borders, and comparative law. His book review of "Snitching," forthcoming in Theoretical Criminology, is here. Here's the beginning of the review:
It is rare to encounter a book that nurtures the passion for justice while also remaining respectful of standards of scholarship. Law professor Alexandra Natapoff has done that in a splendidly informative and lively book. The topic of criminal informants (which need not be the same as informants reporting on criminals) has never been has so comprehensively, disturbingly and clearly analyzed -- not only should criminal justice practitioners and students be required to read it, they should be tested on it.
Among the most significant and least studied aspects of American criminal justice is how the government obtains evidence. Apart from what can be learned from direct observation, searches, forensics or accidents, authorities in a democracy are forever sentenced to making deals, rewards, threats, manipulation, covert surveillance, undercover operations and tips. Negotiation, compromise and voluntary compliance play a much larger role than in more authoritarian societies lacking our expansive notion of procedural rights. Coercion, deception and actions off the books are just beneath the veneer and support the table of our high civic ideals -- ironically partly because of them.

9th Circuit upholds use of jailhouse snitch in sting operation

Jailhouse informant Robert Plunkett reported to police that he had learned that attorney John Garcia was willing to deliver drugs into the Merced County jail. The police set up a sting, and Garcia accepted a bag containing methamphetamines from Plunkett for delivery to his (Garcia's) incarcerated client. As a result of this transaction, Garcia's law office was searched and he was arrested, although not prosecuted. He then sued the police for violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, in effect arguing that based on Plunkett's information they didn't have enough evidence to arrest him or get a warrant. Story here. In Garcia v. County of Merced, the 9th Circuit denied Garcia's claim, reaffirming the principle that information from informants, if properly corroborated and checked, can constitute probable cause for arrest or for a warrant. In this case, "there were at least seven to eight items of corroboration that confirm what Plunkett reported."

The opinion is additionally interesting because it was authored by Judge Stephen Trott, who has been an outspoken critic of the use of criminal informants and lectures prosecutors around the country on the perils of informant use. See Judge Stephen Trott, Outline of lecture to prosecutors on the use of informants. The opinion notes that jailhouse snitches are unreliable, that "the word of a jailhouse informant is suspect and ordinarily requires corroboration before it can be accepted as probable cause," and that "jaihouse informants can always be presumed to be looking for consideration in return for the information." In this case, however, the Court found that the police disclosed enough information to the judge who issued the warrant to put the judge on notice of Plunkett's "suspect and shaky character." That disclosure, in combination with the substantial corroboration, was enough for the warrant.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Maryland High Court on "Snitches Get Stitches" on MySpace

Last year I posted about a Maryland case, Griffin v. State, in which a MySpace comment was used against a defendant: MySpace anti-snitch comment treated as threat. The evidence consisted of a printout of a MySpace page allegedly belonging to the defendant's girlfriend, which read: "Just remember, snitches get stitches!! U know who u are." Last week, the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed that ruling, holding that it was improper to permit the prosecution to use the MySpace comment as evidence in light of how easy it is for other users to manipulate and post information on MySpace. Here's an excerpt from Colin Miller at EvidenceProf Blog about the case:
Griffin is really a terrific opinion whether or not you agree with the court's conclusion. If you want a detailed description of what courts across the country have done so far with regard to the authentication of electronically stored information on social networking sites, you need look no further than the court's opinion.
So, why did the court find that the prosecution failed to authenticate the MySpace page properly? The court agreed with the defendant 'that the trial judge abused his discretion in admitting the MySpace evidence pursuant to Rule 5-901(b)(4), because the picture of Ms. Barber, coupled with her birth date and location, were not sufficient "distinctive characteristics" on a MySpace profile to authenticate its printout, given the prospect that someone other than Ms. Barber could have not only created the site, but also posted the "snitches get stitches" comment. The potential for abuse and manipulation of a social networking site by someone other than its purported creator and/or user leads to our conclusion that a printout of an image from such a site requires a greater degree of authentication than merely identifying the date of birth of the creator and her visage in a photograph on the site in order to reflect that Ms. Barber was its creator and the author of the "snitches get stitches" language.'

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Rat's Life: MS-13 Snitches Run Wild

Another great story this week in SF Weekly, A Rat's Life: MS-13 Snitches Run Wild While Turning State's Evidence by Lauren Smiley. The subheading reads: "To bring down the infamous MS-13 gang, the government recruited and perhaps enabled the gangsters themselves." The story details the career of MS-13 gang member and ICE informant "Bad Boy," who appears to have intentionally racheted up the violence and gang activities of the 20th Street Clique--including recruiting and tatooing young new members--in order to help the government make cases. Due to Bad Boy and several other informants, this gang RICO case is riddled with snitch problems. From the story:
In a triumphant press conference held by federal officials and then-U.S. Attorney Joe Russoniello about the takedown, Bad Boy didn't get a mention. Nor did Jaime "Mickey" Martinez, a former gang leader who would later testify to participating in car thefts and a shooting during his time as a government snitch. Federal law enforcement didn't mention paying these informants thousands of dollars, relocating their families, or letting them stay in the country and giving them work permits.
No wonder: The informants are becoming an increasing liability. One defendant claims he was arrested for committing the crimes he was supposedly informing about, and is now suing the city and his federal handlers. As seven defendants started a trial this month facing sentences of up to life in prison, defense attorneys are claiming entrapment. "The government created much of the violence," Martin Sabelli said in his opening statements. "The prosecution went awry and [my client] was induced, cajoled, and pressured to commit crimes he was not otherwise predisposed to commit," said Lupe Martinez.
This case is unusual in another way. Although the government almost never brings perjury charges against its own informant witnesses, Bad Boy is being charged with making false statements to the government for failing to disclose all of his own past crimes. Ironically, this is a good sign, since at a fundamental level it is up to the government to police the reliability of its own informants.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

New Yorker article on out-of-control FBI informant

Great article in this week's New Yorker by Evan Ratcliff, entitled The Mark: The FBI needs informants, but what happens when they go too far? It's about a longtime FBI/DEA informant named Josef Meyers who worked under the name Josef Franz Prach von Habsburg-Lothringen, claiming to be descended from Austrian royalty, who early in life was diagnosed with a violent "unspecified psychosis" and "latent schizophrenia."

The story focuses on one particular 'mark,' a former district attorney named Albert Santoro, who eventually pled guilty to "operating an unlicenced money-transmitting business," and who maintains that he was entrapped by von Habsburg into appearing as if he was engaged in money laundering. The piece includes jaw-dropping details about von Habsburg's operations, such as thousand dollar dinners at fancy restaurants designed to lure investors, and how he and his wife lived lives of staggering luxury and excess. The story also details the FBI's efforts over the years to protect its informant, including tens of thousands of dollars in payments, helping him avoid punishment for his own drug dealing and fraud, and even arresting a defense team's investigator when he got too close. Von Habsburg is currently in prison for failure to pay child support. A classic tale of a criminal informant who took the system for a wild ride, much like this one.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

First official boss of a NY crime family cooperates with FBI

Joseph Massino, longtime boss of the NY Bonanno crime family, testified on Tuesday against his predecessor Vincent Basciano in a murder trial in which Basciano is accused of ordering the killing of Randolph Pizzolo. Massino himself has previously been convicted of eight murders and is facing two consecutive life sentences -- he has been cooperating with the government since his convictions in 2004. He told the jury that while he has not expressly been promised a sentence reduction in exchange for his testimony, he's "hoping to see a light at the end of the tunnel." The defendant Basciano has also been previously convicted of murder and racketeering and is already facing a life sentence for those offenses. NYT story here: A Mafia Boss Breaks a Code in Telling All.

Over the years, the FBI's handling of its high level mafia informants has been a major force shaping the law and culture of informant use. The Boston FBI's mishandling of its murderous informants Stephen Flemmi and Whitey Bulger led the U.S. Department of Justice to impose strict new guidelines (see link to Attorney General Guidelines at left), while the need to protect mob informants led to the creation of the federal witness protection program WITSEC in the 1960s. See Peter Earley & Gerald Shur, WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program (Bantam Books, 2002).

Young informant killed and mother sues

In 2008 in Florida, 16-year-old Maciel Martin Videla was killed for being an informant. News story here: Mother of murdered confidential informant sues sheriff's office. The family's suit against the Sheriff's Office is based in large part on an undercover police officer's admission that the murderer, Alfredo Sotelo-Gomez, told him (the officer) that he knew Videla was a snitch that he was going to "take care of him," but the officer did not report the threat or warn Videla, who was killed the next day. Narcotics agent: Defendant promised to 'take care of' victim. Sotelo-Gomez was convicted yesterday of kidnapping and first-degree murder.

Videla was killed before the Florida legislature passed Rachel's Law, see Florida's Rachel's Law provides some protection to informants, although that legislation would not necessarily have prevented the police from using Videla as an informant.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Los Angeles jury convicts British man based on jailhouse informant

Neil Revill was convicted today of a double murder based largely on the testimony of jailhouse informant Benjamin Chloupek. Revill was accused of killing a fellow meth user Arthur Davodian, who ironically was himself a police informer who may have given information to the police about Revill. Chloupek testifed that Revill confessed the details of the murder to him while they were incarcerated. Chloupek, whose substantial criminal record includes convictions for manslaughter and child abuse involving the death of an 18-month-old, "admitted approaching detectives with his account in the hope of obtaining a lenient sentence on a burglary case he was facing."

The use of jailhouse informant witnesses in Los Angeles has become a rarity. After a scathing Grand Jury investigation in 1990 in which rampant abuses of informants were uncovered in the Los Angeles jail, the District Attorney's office clamped down, creating new corroboration restrictions, a central jailhouse informant index and committee, and requiring high-level approval before such witnesses could be used. The District Attorneys office states that it has approved the use of jailhouse informant witnesses only six times since 2006. Here's the Los Angeles Times story: Jailhouse informant plays a critical role in trial for a brutal double murder.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

San Francisco to review snitch policy

The San Francisco police department has announced that it is reviewing its use of criminal informants and will provide additional training to officers. The decision comes in the wake of allegations of misconduct against several officers. From the SF Examiner story:
Last Thursday, the day after allegations of illegal searches and seizures against six officers were made public and as gang tensions mounted in the Mission district, police station captains received a message on their department BlackBerrys to stop using confidential sources -- known on the street as snitches -- until further notice.
The directive came from the head of investigations, Cmdr. David Lazar, and was rescinded within an hour, according to interim police Chief Jeff Godown.
"It was an error," he said. Lazar also acknowledged the mistake, calling it a "premature blast out."
But before the order could be reversed, complaints rained down from captains. Capt. Greg Corrales was trying to stop retaliatory gang warfare in the Mission when the order came in. It would have made police work nearly impossible, Corrales said. The department announced that it will review its use of confidential informants this week and officers will receive additional training. . . . "Confidential informants are done on a daily basis and there are administrative issues," Godown said. "We started looking into this months ago."
Informant policies are often intimately associated with police misconduct, in part because informant use is secretive and easily subject to abuse. In the Los Angeles Rampart scandal, for example, police used informants to plant evidence and cover up police shootings. Part of the post-Rampart reform involved curtailing informant use by street officers. See Los Angeles Times story here: LAPD Eases Rules on Street Sources.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

New article: "The Terrorist Informant"

There is increasing public and media interest in the government's use of terrorism informants, particularly with respect to issues of entrapment, and the impact on Muslim American communities. Professor Wadie Said at the University of South Carolina Law School has just published this article: The Terrorist Informant, 85 Washington Law Review 687 (2010), on this important subject. Here is the summary:
A man sets himself on fire in front of the White House in a dispute with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He has been working as an informant for the FBI in a high-profile terrorism prosecution and is unhappy with the $100,000 he has been paid so far. He has also been recently convicted of bank fraud. As a result, the government declines to call him as a witness, given the damage his actions have on his credibility and trustworthiness. This incident underscores the difficulty inherent in relying on paid informants to drive a prosecution, where material considerations such as money and legal assistance are often the price the government pays for an informant's services. In the years since September 11, 2001, informants have been at the heart of many major terrorism prosecutions. The entrapment defense, perhaps the only legal tool available to defendants in such prosecutions, has proven ineffective. This is evident when one considers the context of generally heightened suspicion of the Arab and Muslim communities in the United States. Further, a closer look at several of these prosecutions reveals repeated instances of suggestive and provocative activity by informants geared at obtaining a conviction, calling into question whether a genuine threat to U.S. national security actually existed in the first place. This Article argues that the government should cease its current practice of using informants to generate terrorism prosecutions.

Bump Bump Bump

The term 'selective abstraction' is used in psychology to describe a flawed or prejudicial way of thinking. What occurs in this type of cognitive bias is that a person takes detail out of context and believes that while everything else in context is ignored. In lay terms it is what is 'cherry-picking'. In essence it is not reading the whole story but then basing an argument on the bits you have selected. It is about pointing out everything that is wrong in the way informants are managed and refusing to see the huge amount of good that is done through their use. It is about turning a blind eye to informants that have been mismanaged, pretending these were isolated incidents, then refusing to learn from them. It is a very human failing. We don't want to see what is wrong on our side. We don't want to or can't see another perspective because maybe if we do it means acknowledging we have not been doing things as well as we could have.

When it comes to managing informants everywhere, including the US, there are problems but there is also a significant amount of good work being done and this needs to be recognised. Citizens need to realise how valuable a resource that informants are both in regard to our safety and to the criminal justice system. If a terrorist is intent in bombing our cities then let us hope that somewhere a police officer has an informant stuck in the middle of that plot. If someone is dealing drugs outside the high school where our children attend, then let us hope that a police officer has heard about it from an informant. If one of our children has become mixed up in gang violence then let us hope that a police officer hears about that before we end up burying that child. Every law abiding citizen should be encouraging others to give information about crime to law enforcement.

But all involved in the criminal justice system need to recognise that there are problems with the way in which informants are managed at present. This is not just about protecting the rights of citizens it is also about officer safety. While there are many progressive law enforcement agencies that are attempting to raise standards there is not a collective approach and as such those improvements are likely to have limited success. Is significant change possible? I believe it is and I have seen evidence of it within a number of forward thinking US law enforcement agencies. These include the major police department that has undertaken the training of every officer in relation to the risks involved in informant management, a police department involved proactively recruiting informants to address specific threats, agencies that are writing new and better policies and the sheriff's department that has altered business processes and implemented a comprehensive software solution to provide full accountability in all informant cases - officers with objectivity and vision.

And for the rest, in simple terms, this is what I would suggest. A national working group should be set up including representation from federal, state, municipal and tribal law enforcement with the mandate of identifying new national definitions for all aspects of informant management and to produce binding standards of behaviour for informant management. The guidance produced should set the standard for every law enforcement agency. If legislative change is required then it should be done ensuring adequate protection for all involved including informants. All officers involved in the regular use of informants, including supervisors, should undergo mandatory training to a level that meets the amount of risk involved. (And this is not an afternoon in the classroom!). Each agency should be made to keep comprehensive records of all activities informants relating to informants. Such records should be kept to evidentiary standards and on use software designed for the function. Such records modify undesirable behaviours and provide the accountability that the public want. Academics have a role to play to in researching and developing methodology that can assist law enforcement and the criminal justice process as a whole. Legislators must provide good legislation and if the public want greater accountability then they have to be prepared to pay for the changes necessary. All the changes I suggest can be done and relatively easily if the desire is there. The professionals in this key area need to avoid the select abstraction that comes from their own camp and look at these matters in a broader and more objective manner. There are in essence only two sides, those who want to destroy society and the rest. It is time the rest maybe tried a bit harder to see each other’s perspective.

And that is about it for me. Thank you taking the time to read (hopefully all) I have written. You may disagree with some or all of it, however, in the words of the philosopher Samuel Johnson: ‘I have found you an argument but I am not obliged to find you understanding.’ Hopefully you are at least thinking it through. I believe that the management of informants is an essential part of law enforcement. It saves lives, prevents crime and brings many perpetrators to justice. But perhaps there is a better way to manage informants. As A A Milne wrote in The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh: 'Hear is Edward Bear coming downstairs, bump, bump bump, on the back of his head behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he thinks that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a minute to think of it.'
John welcomes comments and can be contacted through his website

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Secret Justice" article

Here's an article I wrote for Prison Legal News entitled "Secret Justice: Criminal Informants and America's Underground Legal System." The article is a brief overview of many of the themes I cover in the book--here's the first paragraph:
Although it is almost invisible to the public, the use of criminal informants is everywhere in the U.S. justice system. From street corners to jails to courthouses to prisons, every year the government negotiates thousands of deals with criminal offenders in which suspects can avoid arrest or punishment in exchange for information. These deals typically take place off-the-record, subject to few rules and little oversight. While criminal informants-sometimes referred to as "snitches"-can be important investigative tools, using them has some serious costs: informants often continue to commit crimes, while the information they provide is infamously unreliable. Taken together, these facts make snitching an important and problematic aspect of the way America does justice.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: punished for not snitching?

In this month's edition of the Monthly Review, Staughton Lynd offers this meditation on the famous Rosenbergs: Is There Anything More to Say about the Rosenberg Case? Lynd, himself a well-known anti-Vietnam War activist, quaker, historian, and attorney, argues that the Rosenbergs were executed in 1953 not so much for being part of a Russian spy ring, but because they--unlike other members of the ring--refused to give information to the govenment. From the article:
We should ask, "Why were the Rosenbergs punished so much more severely than others whose activities were comparable to theirs?" I believe Haynes and Klehr provide the answer. Each individual who "confessed" was required to do one thing more. He or she was also asked to identify ("finger") other individuals engaged in espionage. Thus, "Fuchs' confession in Britain led the FBI to Harry Gold in the United States. Gold's confession in turn...quickly led the FBI to Sgt. David Greenglass. Greenglass confessed to espionage and also implicated his wife, Ruth, and his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg." But, at this point, the FBI inquiry hit a snag, or what Haynes and Klehr call "stonewalling" by the Rosenbergs and Morton Sobell. That is to say, these three persons refused to snitch. ...
I offer the opinion that the Rosenbergs' execution was really all about their refusal to snitch. On the basis of a fifteen-year acquaintance with death row prisoners in Ohio, I can state that the refusal to snitch is one of the highest values of long-term prisoners. It is the essence of the "convict code." Refusal to snitch earns a prisoner recognition as a "solid convict." In contrast, the government wanted an unbroken chain of informants who would inform against their colleagues. When confronted by individuals who refused to confess or "deal," the government decided to send a message to all other potential informants by killing the Rosenbergs.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bad language

In previous blogs I have highlighted some of the perceptions that exist around law enforcement officers and their involvement in managing informants and I have made suggestions that the underlying system that has evolved contributes to many of the problems that arise. Law enforcement officers will always be in the frontline of protecting society. It is therefore incumbent upon society to set out the standards of behaviour that are expected and to provide law enforcement with the tools to do the job correctly. There seems little point in criticising a law enforcement officer for making errors with regard to behaviour when the legislators and politicians have failed to provide clarity. It is futile to criticise prosecutors for using legislation that has been put in place because citizens have asked politicians to put such legislation in place. It is somewhat hypocritical of the public to demand greater accountability of law enforcement and then not provide funding to purchase software that would help ensure greater accountability. And, if there is to be any resolution of such matters there needs to be open, frank and objective discussion about what is going wrong, why it is going wrong and what can be done to change it. My first suggestion and a subject which I have mentioned in previous blogs is that of clarity around terminology and it is to that which I return now. This is about getting the basics correct.

I have previously highlighted those individuals who are recruited and managed by law enforcement with the intention of providing evidence in legal proceedings. These should not be referred to as informants but as witnesses. I would suggest that the individuals to which the term informant could be applied fall into one of two categories. The first category is that of registered informant. (NYPD have a effective and comprehensive definition) This person will most often be someone involved in crime or from a high crime area who gives law enforcement information about ongoing criminality on a regular basis over an identified period of time. They may, or may not, take part in criminal acts on behalf of the law enforcement agency. The key point about these individuals is that they are registered with the law enforcement agency and there is a record to evidential standards of every action they do on behalf of the agency, every intelligence report they produce, every cent they have been paid and that their behaviour is authorised by a supervisor within the agency following comprehensive risk assessment. Such a process protects the informant, the law enforcement officer and the general public.

The second category of those to be considered as informants are those citizens who give information to law enforcement in the expectation that no one will know they have given such information. This information is likely to be given on a one off or ad-hoc basis. Information coming from such people is likely to include reports of suspicious activity and crime-stoppers type tips. The agency needs to keep a record of who supplies what information. Again such a record protects the person giving the information, the officer receiving the information and the general public. Such a system addresses many of the concerns raised in the stop snitching debate and is particularly well suited to community orientated policing. If the person is not a registered informant or a witness then by default they fall into this category.

While my suggestions here may appear somewhat simplistic they work. Obviously there needs to be significant guidance put in place for each category and a number of subcategories are likely to be required. However, building systems around such basic tenets ensures that appropriate resources can be directed to manage the relevant risks that surround this type of work. Obviously, there is likely to be less risk when a pastor is giving information about drug dealing in her community as opposed to someone who is involved in an organised crime group giving similar information. Hence, different risk control measures should be applied. Furthermore, if a witness is receiving significant benefit for their testimony as opposed to an ordinary witness, then it is in the interests of justice that the jury are aware of those benefits. This not does not mean the witness should be stigmatised with the label of informant, as such an action is prejudicial to the prosecution and does not serve justice.

A significant failing in any process is the corruption or misunderstanding of language. As Senator S I Hayakawa said: If we allow certain key words in our vocabulary to remain undefined, we tend to project an illusion of meaning that ultimately hinders and misdirects our thinking.

As I have stated before I welcome any comments or criticisms. I realise it is a blog but would suggest that you read all the blogs I have written to contextualise my comments. My comments are based on a significant amount of research an my function here is to add to the debate and try to suggest some solutions. In my next and final blog I will provide some other suggestions that may help address the concerns of the many different parties involved in this debate. But for now I will finish with another comment from Senator Hayakawa which I feel applies to all those law abiding individuals who have a right to a viewpoint in this debate be you a law enforcement officer, academic, politician, lawyer or civil rights activist (a role incidentally, that I firmly believe every law enforcement officer fulfils), and it is this:
You guys are saying the same thing. The only reason you are arguing is because you are using different words.

Monday, January 31, 2011

So what is wrong with the 'System'

In my previous blog I opened an argument that the main problem with the management of informants is 'the system' that has evolved around their management. I use the term 'system' loosely as there is not one US system for managing informants. Different agencies use different languages have and have different processes despite attempts by both the Department of Justice and International Chiefs of Police Association, among others, to try and standardise terminology and methodology.

While inconsistency in methods and terminology mean that systems are different it doesn't actually mean they are wrong. True ...but there are too many cases that give rise for concern that it is only by burying ones head in the sand that anyone can try and defend the status quo. Citizens have died, the innocent have gone to jail and the guilty have walked free and good cops have gone bad all because of poor informant management practices.

Let's get to the basics. Firstly the terms 'snitch' 'confidential informant' 'human source' (FBI), 'cooperating witness' and many other derivatives are all used interchangeably. They are not the same. Just as a farmer keeps a horse, a sheep, and a cow for agricultural purposes, the way he manages these animals and what he uses them for is different. It is exactly the same with citizens who are providing law enforcement with information. Categories need to be clearly identified and then the individuals managed accordingly. If we try and milk a horse or sheer a cow, things are going to get messy and the products won’t be what we were hoping for!

How we identify what category a person falls into is most easily worked by answering the simple question: In what way are the law enforcement agency’s intending this person to act? Everything else then follows from that. The first category to look at is the person who is intended to provide evidence.

A significant amount of the concerns that are articulated about 'snitching' revolve around persons who give evidence to obtain a lessening of their own sentence (for example 5K motions). These individuals are not informants they are witnesses. The two roles are different using the terms interchangeably or the terms snitch and/or confidential informant for both roles confuses all involved (arguably most damagingly, the jury). If it is the intention of the law enforcement agency is to use a person to give evidence against another that person is a witness. The reason the terms 'snitch or informant' are used relates to the individuals motive and/or perceived circumstances not the act that they are doing. Using such terms is based in human prejudice. Law enforcement wants this person to provide evidence to a court. Once such a decision is made everything that the law enforcement agency does needs to be done to ensure that the evidence is presented to the court in a manner that the jury can make an objective decision as to whether or not that person’s evidence is credible or not. This means rigorous documentation of each and every contact with that witness from the time they are first spoken to up to the time they give evidence and including details of any subsequent benefit they may receive post trial. All documentation must be of evidential standard. US law enforcement needs to devise a term for this type of person be it cooperating witness, convicted witness, prison witness or whatever but it should include the word witness for that is what they are. National legislation and policy should be drawn up to direct the evidentiary and management criteria surrounding such individuals. Whether or not the evidence of such a person requires corroboration is not for me to dictate but for the US legislature to decide. However, given the huge incentive for such a person to lie, such corroboration may be prudent.

While the US criminal justice system continues to allow confusion around terminology and role, particularly with regard to the evidentiary process, erosion of that system and loss of public confidence is inevitable. Furthermore, while such a situation continues, it helps criminals subvert communities by discouraging law abiding citizens from giving information to the police through such campaigns as that of "Stop Snitching".

In subsequent blogs we will look at the two other categories of informant and then in more general terms at what can be readily achieved to improve the overall management of informants. I welcome any comments, concerns or criticisms.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"You can't trust cops!"

This is true. You can't trust anyone. Totally! All the time! Now try and live your life trusting no one. The simple truth is we make judgements on a daily basis on who we should trust and to what extent. And when it comes to the police, we do trust them - to keep us safe - but that trust is conditional and trust must be continually earned. In this piece we will take an in-depth look at some of the issues affecting the credibility of law enforcement including that which songwriter the late Harry Chapin referred to as "...a sociological phenomena that afflicts the men in blue in America..."

People do not trust the police for many reasons. Policing is, for want of a better term, 'a sexy business' and by this I mean that the majority of people are attracted to it. It is interesting, exciting; it involves people at their best and worst. It makes for great stories and people love stories. Policing makes for great television and great movies and so people are heavily exposed to all its facets. And at the end of the day cops are just people with all the strengths and weaknesses of the rest of us. The main difference between the police and others being is that as a group police officers are under continuous scrutiny. Their faults and failings are continually the subject of media reporting. What happens in law enforcement is we take ordinary men and woman and ask them to do an extremely difficult job and then criticise them when they do it wrong. So before the legislatures, lawyers and academics get too excited about what I will say about law enforcement officers be aware you are complicit in what goes wrong and your time in the spotlight approaches.

We will look at how police behaviour in relation to informants erodes the trust of the public and try and identify the underlying causes. In his song 'Copper' Chapin alludes to police officers being bribed by citizens. The matter of bribery and corruption in law enforcement is a long one that rarely makes for pleasant reading. In informant management police officers deal with criminals who have access to amounts of money and lifestyles that many a law enforcement officer would envy. Policing is often not a well paid job and the temptations are there. When police officers start mixing with criminals in the grey area that is informant management the risks of corruption increase many-fold. Statistics bandied about in UK law enforcement alluded to the fact that as much as 90% of police corruption related to informant management. Remaining on a financial theme officers are often required to pay informants significant amounts of money in return for the information provided. This money is often paid with limited supervision. The temptation for officers is great. Ten for you; ten for me! It happens.

Society wants to be safe and more importantly to feel safe. No more prevalent is this than within American culture. More so than most other Western societies, the US public is subjected to an inordinate amount of fear messages. Citizens want to know that the bad guys are being caught. This puts pressure on elected representatives, who put pressure on police chiefs, who put pressure on police commanders who put pressure on police officers -- get results. (The bad stuff always moves downward!) Whether anyone involved or not including the police officers themselves they are under huge pressure to get results. If they don’t get results they will be criticised. Their promotion prospects will be curtailed, they may get moved to a less desirable posting or the pay may be reduced. The pressure comes on to get results - at any cost.

Furthermore, police officers get tired of "the bad guys" getting away with murder, robberies and destroying lives through the sale of drugs. They get fed up with the inability of the judicial system to deal with these individuals and get annoyed when highly paid lawyers get acquittals based on what they perceive as ‘technicalities’. Is there a temptation to bend the rules? You bet there is.

And if you want another hundred reasons why law enforcement officers make a mess of managing informants I can give you them but maybe the question that needs greater consideration is “Why does the system allow cops to behave in inappropriate ways?” Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, writes: "If you put good people in bad systems you get bad results."
So while it may be easy to blame the cops, and in certain circumstances some cops may well merit blame, the major problem facing US society in relation to managing informants is not those directly involved it is the system that has evolved and it is that system that needs fundamental change.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

'Stop Snitching' in the UK

Since we have a guest from the UK, this story seemed particularly timely. A 'stop snitching' pamphlet was distributed in a largely black London housing project after a murder. The event has triggered a debate very similar to the debate in the U.S. over police-community relations. From the BBC story: Peckham murder 'snitch' leaflet: what has changed?:
"No one likes a rat," the pamphlets stated. "Remember the police are not your friend. Don't be deceived by promises of anonymity, protection and rewards. They will say and do anything to make you snitch, then destroy your life." It concluded: "Be smart. Don't snitch." The flyers were linked to a website, entitled 'Stop Snitching'. It is unclear whether the site is linked to a campaign of the same name launched in 2004, in the troubled US city of Baltimore. ...
Claudia Webbe, chairwoman of the public panel set up to scrutinise the police's work, said: "People on the estate were very angry and defiant after the leaflets - but for some it added to the fear. It tapped into suspicions some have long believed." One Southwark councillor has claimed that the leaflets actually had the effect of increasing the number of calls to police - something the Metropolitan Police is yet to comment on. And Ms Webbe thinks the estate's reaction since the leafleting campaign is symptomatic of how relationships between police and the black community have improved. She said: "In 1998 not a single person would have spoken to police after a murder like this."

Friday, January 14, 2011

Contract killer avoids death penalty by cooperating

Washington Times journalist Jim McElhatton has written another revealing story about the violent dynamics of snitching: this one on seven-time killer Oscar Veal who cooperated against the violent Washington DC drug gang that hired him. In exchange, Veal escaped the death penalty and was sentenced to 25 years, half of which he has already served. Story here: A killer deal: be a star witness, escape execution. Based on thousands of pages of newly obtained documents, the Times story offers a rare window into the secretive dynamics of such arrangements. From the story:
Veal, 39, shot and killed seven people. A contract killer for a large drug ring and murder-for-hire operation a decade ago, he cooperated with prosecutors and became a star witness for the government. Kevin Gray, the lead defendant in one case in which Veal testified, alone was convicted in Washington of taking part in a record 19 murders.
But there is a price to be paid for such testimony. Veal could have faced the death penalty. Instead, he has completed about half of a 25-year prison term -- less than four years for each of the execution-style murders he committed. At his 2005 sentencing, which has not been previously reported, a relative of one victim said she will pray until her dying breath that Veal never sees the streets again. And attorneys for the men he testified against portrayed him as a snitch willing to lie in court to save himself.
The Veal story starkly illustrates the trade-offs of the criminal informant deal. On the one hand, deals with murderers like Veal are one of the only ways the government can go after violent criminal organizations. On the other, society pays a significant price, not only because Veal will walk the streets again but because offenders like him know that the most heinous of crimes can be worked off in exchange for cooperation.

Why does 'snitching' get such a bad rap?

If we are to start to understand what is wrong with the way in which informants are managed we have to first start to examine the whole concept of using informants and how we, as people, are likely to perceive their use. Being an informant is intrinsically linked to the act of betraying the group (tribe) to which the informant belongs: de facto the individual causes harm to their group for the benefit of another group. From a human 'survival' perspective this act is destructive though to fully comprehend this statement we must return to the days when we lived in tribal groupings. Despite the fact that this maybe many years ago we are still to a greater extent conditioned by the way in which people lived then. If one of our tribe did not fully contribute to the group or worse 'betrayed' the tribe, then the tribe and all in it were less likely to survive; hence, the need for loyalty in the tribe and the ostracising of those who were disloyal. This perception that betrayal of any sort is wrong has been reinforced by the fact that majority of people in modern western democracies are familiar with the story of the betrayal of Jesus to the Romans by Judas. Given the significant number of people that look to the Bible for moral guidance, it can hardly be thought strange that society finds betrayal abhorrent. [As an aside, an alternative perspective on this story with real relevance to this whole debate Judas was merely a law abiding citizen who gave information on a dangerous subversive who was trying to undermine the legitimate Roman government. Truth is out there somewhere but perception is everything.] Furthermore, we are all taught well by our peers in kindergarten: "You don’t snitch to the teacher."

Society in general is based on shared values and trust; snitching undermines this and leads to the perception that it is damaging to the fabric of our society. Finally, add to that the fact that the very nature of informing requires deceit at so many levels and we start to understand why snitching starts out with a “bad rap.” All that said, regardless of how prevalent these beliefs may be they are all up for debate!

So if we start that as a baseline many consider using informants wrong, then we must ask what do law enforcement do to alter this perception? Law enforcement agencies in the US undoubtedly are more proactive than many of their counterparts in other jurisdictions about highlighting the use of informants in solving crimes. There is not a day goes past that there are not numerous press reports of confidential informants helping to bring perpetrators to justice. So why do the public concerns remain? Perhaps many take a somewhat simplistic view - you can’t trust the police! Policing of a community is done through consent. The police are an arm of government and have a right to take away our liberty and our lives. We worry about the powers they have. We fear for what they will do and for our safety. We worry when they are secretive. Combine this with inherent senses of right and wrong and of justice and there remains a distinctly uncomfortable feeling about the use of informants.

And then law enforcement really puts the fox in the chicken house with prominent cases like the tragic deaths of Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta and Rachel Hoffman in Tallahassee and the average citizen starts to become really concerned. It is perhaps worth of note here that if we were to stick rigidly to the definition of snitching on this blog namely "Snitching" when police or prosecutors offer lenience to criminal suspects in exchange for information or cooperation" then, arguably the Kathryn Johnson case would fall outside the remit of the definition because the main problem was not directly related to the informant!

So why do law enforcement seem to hell-bent on doing things wrong? The answer is they are not. The vast majority of law enforcement officers are good people doing an extremely difficult job. They are prepared to put their life on the line so you and I can sleep safely in our beds, get up and go safely to our work and come home and enjoy time with our families. The rub here is that they are 'people' with all the attributes that you and I have. When you criticise a law enforcement officer over some informant case regardless of how tragic a case it is they will in all likelihood perceive it as an attack on law enforcement in general and they will adopt a defensive position. They will rationalise what has happened, become dismissive of many of the concerns and antagonistic to those raising the issues. In discussions with many law enforcement officers these and many other cases, there are a raft of different interpretations of the events with some being deeply critical of the officers or agencies involved to those defending those involved. All the points raised have validity. These law enforcement officers, from patrol officers to Chiefs have all expressed the desire to manage informants in a professional manner. So where is it going wrong?

While there are many possible explanations the first thing to acknowledge is that many law enforcement agencies try to manage confidential informants in a professional way. However, it is a high risk area of policing and a many of those directly involved people including legislatures, lawyers, chiefs of police, detectives and patrol officers fail to understand how difficult an aspect of policing this is. For too long it has been seen as part and parcel of the policing role and one that needs no training and little supervision, no legislation and little policy, minimal record keeping and little accountability. When things go wrong there is always an individual officer or individual agency to blame. There is a failure to recognise the extent of the problem and to analyse it and to identify the causes. The reality is that while many other aspects of US policing have significantly improved, the way in which informants are managed has seen little change over the years. And in a society where public expectations of behaviour and accountability have changed the situation becomes less and less acceptable as time progresses.

US law enforcement is not alone in having to deal with such concerns. Many other countries have already had to evaluate the way in which informants are managed and make significant changes. There have been public enquiries in Australia, Canada and Ireland all of which have identified serious shortcomings. In the United Kingdom, over the past twenty years, law enforcement has been subjected to a number of high profile enquiries and court cases where methods used for informant management have led to significant changes including the publication of national policy for all police forces, mandatory training and structures for all officers involved in managing informants, rights based legislation in the form of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (introduced in 2000) and further legislation to deal with witness testimony coming from convicted persons in 2005. While these changes caused difficulties for law enforcement in their implementation their legacy has been a significant rise police standards and of accountability. These changes have worked in tandem with other well accepted policing concepts including Community Orientated Policing and Intelligence Led Policing.

At this juncture it is perhaps worth it for all to pause and consider where we may be. Just as post 9/11 the way in which intelligence was collected and managed was subjected to a huge amount of scrutiny, and the subsequent changes that were required, then now is perhaps an appropriate time for all with a genuine interest in this debate on informant management to take an objective look at how informants are managed within US law enforcement and how that process could be improved. The first step is recognising there is a problem. Kathryn Johnston, Rachel Hoffman, allegations of corruption in places like Philadelphia and Tulsa and the concerns over the use of confidential informants in Mosques in California are not isolated cases. They are symptoms off a much wider national malaise. US law enforcement needs to use informants but there needs to be changes in how they do it. This is not problem that can be resolved by single law enforcement agencies. It is a national problem that needs addressed at a national level and not just by law enforcement.

In upcoming blogs we will examine specific causes of some of the issues, we will look at what has been done and what is being done and most importantly the realistic and easily achievable steps that can be taken to improve the situation.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Challenge to Texas death penalty

In an historic and rare event, a Texas judge last month began a hearing on the constitutionality of the death penalty, entertaining arguments that the system is so prone to erroneous conviction that it might violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The defense called numerous experts from around the country (including me) to testify on various aspects of the death penalty including: error rates, the use of unreliable eyewitness testimony, junk science and forensic evidence, informants, discovery, death-qualified juries, and race. Story and witness list here: Hearing on Constitutionality of Texas Death Penalty. At the government's request, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed the hearing after two days and the parties are now briefing matters. For additional information, see Fountain's Pen blog: Appeals court orders stay in death penalty hearing.

Harris County, TX offering jailhouse snitches $5000

More Texas news. The Harris County jail has a new "Crime Stoppers" program aimed at inmates who call in information, offering rewards of up to $5,000. Houston Chronicle story here: Jailhouse informers: Inmates can offer tips, get paid. County Sheriff Adrian Garcia explains the idea:
"When people are coming into the jail environment, we recognize they're vulnerable," Garcia said. "They're caught and being processed. We wanted to take advantage of that psychology. If they are the only one caught and they've been involved in a crime someone else planned, it may be a good idea for them to speak up."
While the idea of extending Crime Stoppers to criminals might seem logical, Grits for Breakfast points out some challenges:
One critical difference between jailhouse snitches and others who call Crime Stoppers, though: While an arrest may be made or criminal charges filed based on testimony from a jailhouse informant, in 2009 the Texas Legislature, in a bill authored by state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, required corroboration for jailhouse snitches' testimony in order to secure a conviction. Another difference: Jail calls are never anonymous.
The oddest aspect of the new program is that it completely ignores the well-documented tendency of jailhouse snitches to lie in exchange for benefits. From the Los Angeles Grand Jury investigation to the Canadian Kaufman inquiry, the Illinois Commission on the death penalty, and the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice report, numerous official studies have documented the pervasive use of snitches in U.S. jails and the potent dangers of wrongful conviction that flow from doing so. See for example, The Snitch System Report by Northwestern University Law School, concluding that criminal snitches constitute the "leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital cases." It is thus hard to see how Crime Stoppers' executive director Katherine Cabannis can say that "she believes the program will be successful because it solicits crime information from an untapped population" or how it can be that District Attorney Pat Lykos "sees no potential downsides." Indeed, jailhouse snitch testimony is so infamously unreliable that it compelled Texas to enact its corroboration requirement, which I applauded here: Texas requires corroboration for jailhouse snitches. While the corroboration requirement should mitigate some of the dangers of Harris County's new reward program, in this day and age government officials should think long and hard before creating new incentives for jailhouse informants.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Guest blogger John Buckley

Coming from 'across the pond' I feel it a great honour to be able to share my thoughts with you with regard to what has become commonly referred to as 'snitching' and thank Alexandra for the opportunity. In some respects, it may seem strange that a person who has spent a considerable part of their life involved in promoting the use of informants ends up writing on a blog that has, in the past been, and probably will be again, highly critical of such tactics being used by law enforcement. So let me explain how it came about. Having been lucky enough to spend a considerable part of my law enforcement career involved in all aspects of managing informants I gravitated, initially, to training others in that role and then to researching how law enforcement could manage informants in a more effective manner. In carrying out any research in regard to the management of informants, what becomes readily apparent is that whilst there exists significant differences in the various criminal justice systems found across the western world, the problems encountered in the management of informants rarely differ. So it is hardly surprising that someone got around to writing a book about it... which led me to Alexandra and her blog.

For many people there is significant ambiguity about the definition of 'snitching'. In the opening gambit of this snitching blog the following is used:
"Snitching" when police or prosecutors offer lenience to criminal suspects in exchange for information or cooperation"

While such a definition addresses many concerns that arise from the use of confidential informants, inherent in the definition are a number of problems. Firstly, 'snitching' is a slang term and while it certainly captures many of the emotions associated with the practice it does not bring with it the objectivity that is required to address the issues it raises. It is a term that offends many people directly involved in the associated acts including both citizens and law enforcement officers. Secondly, I would argue that in using slang we professionals, who should strive to improve the criminal justice system, stoop to the language and level of those in the criminal fraternity who would seek to undermine our society. Thirdly, the definition is not broad enough, if all we seek to address is the issue of leniency being offered to criminal suspects then we are not addressing many of the other issues associated with the management of confidential informants. Having said all that, the blog title certainly gets people interested and hopefully thinking which is probably exactly what intended to do and as such is certainly a step along the correct path.

So, let me set out where my intentions are to go over the next month I will spend with you.

I will start with where I perceive US law enforcement and indeed US intelligence agencies are with regard to managing what are referred to here as 'snitches' and in other circles as 'confidential informants', 'human sources, 'rats', 'phinks' or in military and intelligence circles as 'humint'. I will highlight some of the problems I see and make suggestions as to where I believe law enforcement agencies need to go in order to address many of the concerns raised by the citizens that law enforcement seeks to serve.

I will begin with a couple of baseline statements. Firstly, the terminology I will use throughout is that of 'confidential informant'. It is one that is widely used and accepted within law enforcement and within the criminal justice system. That said, there are problems with the breadth of situations that people are in, that the term is expected to embrace. Those problems I will address shortly. The second statement I will make is that law enforcement cannot succeed in the prevention and investigation of crime, particularly with regard to organised crime and terrorism, without the use of confidential informants. No matter how distasteful some people may find that statement (and I am willing to debate it whenever and with whomever) that is a cost to protect the society in which we live.

The comments that I offer here stem from the hard won experience gained by many of the law enforcement agencies I have had the privilege to work with over the years. The mistakes that are being made now within the criminal justice system are rarely new. Unfortunately, they have been made before and often many times before. Later, we will explore reasons why such mistakes continue to me made.

Returning to definitions the first problem surrounds that of the meaning of the term 'confidential informant'. One of the fundamental problems is the lack of sufficient standardisation with regard to use of the term and what the term is intended to incorporate. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has chosen, in its 2006 guidelines, to use the term 'Confidential Human Source', a term that is not used by the majority of other law enforcement agencies. While that term has many positive attributes, it is at variance with what is widely used by the majority of other practitioners within the criminal justice system. The very nature of modern law enforcement requires inter-agency cooperation but in this case the lead federal agency is at variance with its partners. Some may argue that this is a semantic debate, but if informants are to be managed properly it needs to begin with clarity of language. Following on from this, the breadth of individuals and circumstances to which the term is applied incorporates too many widely differing circumstances for there to be any real control or accountability. If informants are to be managed properly, in a way that addresses genuine public concerns then there needs to be some degree of categorisation within that term. Some law enforcement agencies have attempted to categorise different types of informant but this most often done on an ad hoc agency by agency basis.

The circumstances in which the law enforcement agency (LEA) obtains information from a citizen dictates the level of risk that is associated with that individual and the steps necessary to manage that risk in an effective and accountable manner. At present the term confidential informant is applied to circumstances as varied as a head teacher giving information on a pupil involved in drug dealing at a school, to a member of the Mafia reporting on organised crime, and to the situation where a convicted prisoner gives evidence against a cell-mate. Each of these circumstances raises issues that need to be managed in different ways. Neither justice, nor the effective deployment of limited law enforcement resources, are served by attempting to deal with such individuals in a similar way.

To begin law enforcement needs to identify broad categories into which they can place an individual and then manage that individual according to an agreed and document set of standards. There are three categories that command an adequate starting place all of which will fall within the broader understanding of the established term 'confidential informant'. [The wording used here is only suggested to explain the concepts it is up to the relevant Federal or State authorities to agree and document the terms to be used.]

1. 'Registered Human Source.' This term refers to a person with whom the LEA enters into a relationship in order to obtain information over and identified period and under specified set of circumstances. This relationship is authorised by someone in a management position within the LEA and all aspects of that relationship are documented.

2. 'Prison Witness.' This term refers to a person serving a prison sentence with whom the agency enters into a relationship with the intention that the person will give evidence against another person. Such a person is often referred to at the minute as a 'jailhouse snitch.'

3. 'Member of the public.' This term refers to all other persons who do not fall within either Category 1 or 2 and includes any person passing information to the LEA in the expectation that their identity remains confidential (i.e. the intention is they will not be used as a witness).

Each of these categories will be explored in more depth later when it will become apparent how many of the current problems faced in the USA with regard to informants might have been avoided. Of course categorising individuals is not the solution but it is a start. I welcome your comments of any nature.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Welcome to John Buckley

I'm pleased to introduce January's guest blogger John Buckley from the United Kingdom. John brings a comparative perspective, as the UK and US handle informants quite differently. He also brings his expertise as a former law enforcement officer with decades of experience handling confidential informants. Here is his bio:
John Buckley is a former UK law enforcement officer with over 28 years policing experience in counter terrorism and intelligence gathering. He is the author of two books. "The Human Source Management System: The use of psychology in the management of human intelligence sources." and "Invest Now or Pay Later: The management of risk in covert law enforcement." He is the co author of the United Kingdom Home Office Research Paper "Human Source Management -- A better way to manage human intelligence sources." He has been involved in numerous working groups on the management of confidential sources including that working on UK national policy. He has acted as a consultant in developing purpose built software for managing covert law enforcement operations and trained officers from across the world in all aspects of managing informants. He is a regular speaker at law enforcement conferences. He can be contacted at

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Due to overwhelming amounts of spam, Snitching Blog unfortunately can no longer accept comments. If you have information that you would like to bring to my attention, you can reach me by email through Loyola Law School's website.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Washington State introduces exciting new legislation

Senator Bob McCaslin (R-Spokane Valley) has introduced Senate Bill 5004 which would vastly improve the way Washington creates and uses criminal informants: An Act Relating to disclosure and regulation of criminal informant evidence and testimony. The effort was triggered by this case -- More on the Spokane convictions --in which three young men were convicted based on the testimony of a criminal informant. Even after an acccomplice recanted, saying that the three were set up, the boys still were denied a new trial. The family of one of the three, Paul Statler, has been vigorously advocating for legislative change -- hence SB 5004. Inlander Magazine story here: Reasonable Doubt. Full disclosure: I provided Sen. McCaslin's office with information in support of this bill, and I am strongly in favor of the effort.

This bill is an excellent example of the kinds of legislative change that we can expect more of, as legislatures and the public learn more about the risks of informant use. It is also a moving example of how families of young defendants are influencing the debate over informant policy -- see Florida's Rachel's Law offers some protection to informants, and Recruiting new informants. This is such an important phenomenon that has created a new subject matter area devoted to it: Families & Youth. More to come.