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January 27, 2012

Posted by Alexandra Natapoff at 11:00 AM

Tallahassee agrees to pay $2.6 million in informant Rachel Hoffman's death

The city of Tallahassee, FL, has agreed to settle the case over informant Rachel Hoffman's death for $2.6 million. Story here. Tallahassee police had sent Hoffman, a young inexperienced informant, on a sting operation to buy guns and drugs, during which she was killed. After Hoffman's death, the Florida legislature passed "Rachel's Law" which requires Florida police to create guidelines for the creation and use of informants. See this previous post: Florida's Rachel's Law offers some protection to informants. The Hoffman settlement is an important milestone because it acknowledges that governments may be responsible for the dangers that informants often face when trying to satisfy police or prosecutorial demands for information and cooperation. Recently, several other families have brought similar suits for the death of young informants. See here , here, and here.


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January 24, 2012

Posted by Alexandra Natapoff at 03:46 PM

Washington state family sues police for the murder of their informant son

From the Washington State Daily News: Family of murdered informant files claim.

The parents of a slain Longview drug informant have filed claims against Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties, saying narcotics detectives coerced 26-year-old Jeremy McLean into their service, then failed to protect him from a drug dealer he'd helped police snare.

McLean, who was murdered by William Vance Reagan Jr. in late 2008, was arrested on drug-related charges and "was forced to sign a plea agreement ... in order to avoid incarceration," according to documents filed late last month. The terms of the plea agreement required McLean to become an informant for the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Narcotics Task Force, according to the claim...


Reagan, who was sentenced to life in prison, confessed to the killing, saying he was trying to keep McLean from testifying against him.




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Posted by Alexandra Natapoff at 03:29 PM

Mexican cartel informant testifies in Texas

Here's an unusually detailed glimpse into the activities of a Mexican informant who was part of the Zetas cartel while working for the DEA: Snitch tells of spying on Zetas. It's unusual in part because of the generally secretive nature of informant use, but also more concretely because trials are infrequent and therefore informants rarely testify. On the extent to which informant/cartel members have become central to U.S. law enforcement in Mexico, see this previous post: NYT: Numerous Mexican drug informants benefit U.S. law enforcement.


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January 23, 2012

Posted by Alexandra Natapoff at 03:13 PM

Reuters criticizes leniency for insider trading informant

David Slaine, a participant in the Galleon hedge fund insider trading scandal, was sentenced to probation and community service on Friday in exchange for his cooperation with prosecutors. He was facing up to 25 years in prison. This column from Thomson Reuters argues that Slaine got too good of a deal:

NEW YORK, Jan 23 (Reuters Breakingviews) - A financial snitch has gotten off too lightly. David Slaine, a former Galleon Group employee, pleaded guilty to insider trading and conspiracy but became an informant to help nab others, including the hedge fund and trading scandal kingpin, Raj Rajaratnam. At the urging of prosecutors, a federal judge has rewarded Slaine with probation and community service instead of up to 25 years in prison. Such leniency risks overreliance on criminals. . . .The justice system probably can't crack big cases without the cooperation of unsavory characters, and giving Slaine favorable treatment is justified up to a point. But even for the best information, letting confessed felons like him essentially off the hook is too high a price to pay.

In a similar vein, this New York Times piece points out that, under recently proposed amendments to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, heavier sentences for insider trading will make cooperation--and the vastly lower sentences that accompany it--an increasingly prominent feature of white collar prosecutions.
The potential for higher sentences means the incentive to cooperate with the government in an investigation will be that much greater. There is already a significant disparity between the sentences of a cooperating defendant and one who goes to trial, and the best way to avoid the recommended sentence under the guidelines is to help prosecutors convict others....

The benefits of cooperation are likely to be on display in the near future when crucial cooperating witnesses in the prosecution of Mr. Rajaratnam are sentenced. Anil Kumar and Rajiv Goel testified at his trial, and prosecutors are likely to recommend substantially lower sentences than those received by other defendants who pleaded guilty but did not cooperate, like the 30-month sentence given to Danielle Chiesi.


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January 11, 2012

Posted by Alexandra Natapoff at 10:04 PM

Detroit teen killed after becoming an informant

Shelley Hilliard, a 19-year-old transgendered woman, agreed with police to set up a $335 drug deal in order to avoid being arrested for marijuana possession. Three days later she was killed, allegedly by the man she set up. Detroit News story here: Teen found dead three days after helping police. This story illustrates how informant culture encourages dangerous decisions that are wildly disproportionate to the crimes involved. This young woman took a great risk to avoid the petty offense of marijuana possession, and police turned her into an informant, with all its attendant risks, in pursuit of another petty drug deal worth less than $400. Such important decisions--by individuals or police--should not be made so cavalierly. For example, Florida's "Rachel's Law" requires police to establish guidelines to determine when it is appropriate, or too dangerous, to turn a suspect into an informant. Rachel's Law was passed in response to the death of Rachel Hoffman, another young informant who was killed while setting up a drug deal. See this previous post: Florida's Rachel's Law provides some protection to informants, and the Families & Youth section on the main website for related stories.


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January 09, 2012

Posted by Alexandra Natapoff at 02:28 PM

Supreme Court begins debating informant unreliability

The Supreme Court released an order today denying certiorari in Cash v. Maxwell, formerly Maxwell v. Roe, an important Ninth Circuit decision discussed in this previous post. Usually the Court does not explain cert denials, but this case generated a heated debate between Justice Sotomayor, who supported the denial, and Justices Scalia and Alito who thought the Ninth Circuit's decision should have been overturned. See SCOTUSblog post here, and L.A. Times story here.

Today's decision is important for a number of reasons. First, it shows that the Justices have joined numerous state and federal legislators in recognizing the problem of informant unreliability. Informant-based wrongful convictions are increasingly frequent in the courts and in the news, and many states have taken up the issue. See Legislation Section of the main website. Although the Court did not answer the question today, it's a sign of the times that the Justices are arguing about it.


Maxwell also shows how the legal debate over informant use is becoming less about procedure and more about substantive questions of reliability and innocence. Until recently, most informant litigation has been a fight over disclosure: the information that the government must disclose regarding its use of compensated criminal witnesses. The Maxwell case and the Sotomayor/Scalia debate squarely confront the substantive question of unreliability: how unreliable can compensated criminal witnesses be before the law restricts their use? Or to put it another way, how high is our tolerance for the likelihood of wrongful conviction? Even Justice Scalia concluded that the informant in Maxwell's case was a "habitual liar," and that there were reasons "to think it likely that [he] testified falsely" at Maxwell's trial. The Ninth Circuit took the next step, holding that the Due Process Clause does not permit such clearly unreliable evidence to be used. As a result of today's cert denial, this holding stands.


Finally, Justice Sotomayor pointed out that the Ninth Circuit relied on "an avalanche of evidence" that the informant in that case was unreliable. The existence of such evidentiary avalanches is a relatively new phenomenon. Thanks to the innocence movement and numerous new studies (see Resources & Scholarship section on the main website), courts and litigators have more evidence than ever before regarding the unreliability of criminal informants. These new data will surely change how courts consider such questions in the future.


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