• 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

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.