A Texas legislator has just introduced a new bill, H.B. 189, that would bar the use of compensated criminal informants in capital cases. H.B. 189 would make informant and accomplice testimony inadmissible if "the testimony is given in exchange for a grant or promise by the attorney representing the state or by another of immunity from prosecution, reduction of sentence, or any other form of leniency or special treatment." In effect, the bill embodies the sensible idea that paying criminals for their testimony is simply too unreliable to be used in death penalty cases. The Texas Tribune ran this story: Bill Would Restrict Informant Testimony in Death Cases. The bill would also bar the use of alleged confessions made to jailhouse snitches unless the confessions are corroborated by electronic recordings. In many ways Texas has been on the forefront of this issue--the state already has drug and jailhouse snitch corroboration requirements. See this post: Texas requires corroboration for informant witnesses.
The Bal Habour police department is under federal investigation for its use of a team of informants to collect millions of dollars in forfeitures, often without making any arrests. The Miami Herald ran this story, Feds probe Bal Harbour Police Department over seized millions, describing how this small police department uses "a team of snitches and undercover cops" to "seize a fortune in cash every year" from all over the country. "Now, the special unit is under federal investigation for its handling of millions in seized dollars, including hundreds of thousands paid to snitches, questionable expenses and missing financial records." Over four years, Bal Harbour police spent thousands of forfeiture dollars on equipment, cars, boats, first class plane tickets, and a banquet. The department paid its informants $624,558.
Such programs are made possible by federal forfeiture law, under which police departments can keep a percentage of seized assets. Because the legal standards for forfeiture are lower than for a criminal case, police can seize money and assets without having to prove anyone guilty. For a great overview of forfeiture law and its reliance on informants, see Radley Balko's article in Reason Magazine, The Forfeiture Racket. See also this report from the Institute for Justice: Policing for Profit.
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