• 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

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Exoneration in Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism just published this story--When lies lead to wrongful convictions--about Sammy Hadaway, a psychologically damaged defendant who was pressured during a police interrogation into wrongfully confessing and incriminating his friend Chaunte Ott. Ott was later exonerated of the wrongful rape and murder charges after serving 12 years. From the story:
Four years after Ott was convicted, attorneys at the Wisconsin Innocence Project began working on his case. The Innocence Project, a University of Wisconsin Law School program that investigates allegations of wrongful convictions, called for DNA testing of the semen collected from [the victim's] body. The DNA evidence, which excluded both Ott and Hadaway as possible contributors, matched a convicted serial killer named Walter Ellis who strangled and killed at least seven women between 1986 and 2007.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Snitching among slaves

Professor Andrea Dennis has posted this exploration of the role of Black informants during slavery: A Snitch in Time: An Historical Sketch of Black Informing During Slavery. It's her second piece on informants--the first one addressed juvenile snitching in the war on drugs. Here's the abstract:
This article sketches the socio-legal creation, use, and regulation of informants in the Black community during slavery and the Black community's response at that time. Despite potentially creating benefits such as crime control and sentence reduction, some Blacks today are convinced that cooperation with government investigations and prosecutions should be avoided. One factor contributing to this perspective is America's reliance on Black informants to police and socially control Blacks during slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Wars on Drugs, Crime and Gangs. Notwithstanding this historical justification for non-cooperation, only a few informant law and policy scholars have examined closely the Black community's relationship with informing. Furthermore, even among this small group of works, noticeably absent are historical explorations of Black America's experience with informing during slavery. Drawn using a variety of primary and secondary historical and legal sources, this article develops a snapshot of the past revealing many similarities between the Black experience with informing both while enslaved and in contemporary times. Consideration of these resemblances during present debate on the topic may help to facilitate nuanced conversation as to whether and how the modern Black community and government should approach using informants in current times.
This is an important piece of history. As Dennis points out, there has been an underappreciated trajectory from slave informants to the FBI snitches planted in civil rights organizations, to the "Stop Snitching" movement in urban neighborhoods. For a helpful articulation of the relationship between that trajectory and hip hop's glorification of "stop snitching," see Professor Mark Lamont Hill's piece "A Breakdown of the Stop Snitching Movement."

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Lowell, Mass. police sued for informant misuse

The city of Lowell, MA, is being sued, along with Officer Thomas Lafferty, for permitting the longterm misuse of informants who allegedly planted drugs on innocent people. Stories from the Boston Globe and the Lowell Sun here, here and here. Lowell has been under scrutiny for its informant policies: earlier this year a prosecutorial review cleared Officer Lafferty of wrongdoing in connection with his informant practices.

Plaintiffs harmed by informants often have a difficult time holding government actors and agencies responsible in court, since it can be hard to show that the government authorized the informants' bad behavior. For a prominent counter-example, see Estate of Davis v. U.S., 340 F.Supp.2d 79 (D. Mass. 2004) (describing a variety of legal theories under which the FBI might be held liable for murders committed by their informants Whitey Bulger and Stephen Flemmi). With growing scrutiny of and information about the government-informant relationship, the law in this regard may be due for a change.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

S-visas: snitching to avoid deportation

The federal government has 250 S-visas (sometimes called "snitch" visas) at its disposal to award to immigrants who provide information about crimes. See 18 U.S.C. s. 1101(a)(15). There has been increasing attention paid to abuses of immigrants under this program: visas promised but never awarded, immigrants who provide significant information but are deported anyway, sometimes at risk to their lives. For more information see the following sources: Andrew Becker, Retired Drug Informant Says he Was Burned, NPR (Feb. 13, 2010); Helen O'Neill, Informants for Feds Face Deportation, Associated Press (2/13/2010) ; Prerna Lal, Reforming a Visa to Snitch, Social Science Research Network (SSRN), (May 1, 2013).

Friday, August 23, 2013

Congressman Lynch Urges Holder to Strengthen Informant Guidelines

Congressman Stephen Lynch (D-MA), author of the 2013 Confidential Informant Accountability Act, has written a formal letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking that the FBI be required to report serious informant crimes to Congress. From the press release:
The FBI routinely authorizes its confidential informants to engage in so-called 'otherwise illegal activity' without full disclosure to Congress as to the nature and extent of these crimes," said Congressman Lynch. "By revising the current guidelines governing the use of FBI confidential informants to require the FBI to report to Congress on the specific crimes committed by its human sources, the Attorney General would take a significant step towards ensuring greater accountability, transparency, and safety regarding the administration of Department of Justice confidential informant programs. 
Lynch, a senior member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has continually supported enhanced accountability and transparency in the use of government confidential informants. In the 113th Congress, he has introduced H.R. 265, the Confidential Informant Accountability Act of 2013, legislation that would require all federal law enforcement agencies to report to Congress all serious crimes committed by their confidential human sources. In addition, Lynch has consistently called for the Oversight Committee to conduct hearings regarding the use of confidential informants by the Department of Justice and specifically, the FBI. In the 112th Congress, Lynch, with the support of the Oversight Committee and Senator Charles E. Grassley, led a more than yearlong investigation to examine the relationship between the FBI Boston Division and an individual known as Mark Rossetti. Importantly, the investigation facilitated an internal review of the FBI's Rossetti case files by an FBI Inspection team deployed to Boston in 2011 and confirmation of Rossetti's previous status as a longtime FBI confidential informant.
Lynch's letter to Holder can be found here.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

USA Today on crimes committed by FBI informants

Newly uncovered documents reveal that the FBI expressly authorized its informants (or Confidential Human Sources) to commit over 5,600 crimes in a year. USA Today obtained the documents in response to a FOIA request. Although it is well known that informants often continue to offend, this one of the first public accountings of informant crimes authorized by the government. The 5,600 number does not include unauthorized crimes committed by informants, although the FBI is required to document those as well.
The FBI has special rules governing the authorization of informant crime. Referred to as "Tier 1" and "Tier 2 Otherwise Illegal Activity," handlers can approve the commission of crimes by their informants, as long as the informant does not personally commit perjury or a violent crime. Permissible crimes include: drug trafficking, crimes of violence committed by persons other than the informant, and the provision to a third party of "a controlled substance, an explosive, firearm, or other dangerous weapon...with little or no expectation of its recovery by the FBI." Those rules can be found in the U.S. Dep't of Justice Guidelines for the FBI's Use of Confidential Human Sources. While 5,600 crimes may sound like a lot, this is the tip of the informant crime iceberg. As the USA Today story put it,
Crimes authorized by the FBI almost certainly make up a tiny fraction of the total number of offenses committed by informants for local, state and federal agencies each year. The FBI was responsible for only about 10% of the criminal cases prosecuted in federal court in 2011, and federal prosecutions are, in turn, vastly outnumbered by criminal cases filed by state and local authorities, who often rely on their own networks of sources.
In fact, the FBI has some of the best accountability and transparency rules in this area. Many state and local police departments lack guidelines for documenting or authorizing informant crime, leaving it to the discretion of individual officers to decide whether and under what circumstances their informants will be permitted to commit new crimes.

Monday, June 24, 2013

TruthOut on the use of informants against political activists

Truthout published this story on the Chicago police's deployment of undercover informants against Occupy Wall Street activists who were protesting a NATO summit in 2012: Revealed: The Story Behind the "NATO 3" Domestic Terrorism Arrests. The trial of the NATO 3 is scheduled for September. From the story:
Accused of domestic terrorism in the course of the Chicago NATO summit, Brian Church, Brent Betterly and Jared Chase were arguably victims of police entrapment and the use of "Red Squad" tactics the Chicago police were formerly enjoined from employing....Dubbed the "NATO 3" in media reports, they face maximum sentences of 85 years in prison apiece if convicted, under a decade-old Illinois law that had never been used before. And that was without ever carrying out an attack....Their case is a big one. It's the new face of US counterterrorism investigations - a template for pre-crime arrests, performed through entrapment by police - to stop supposedly dangerous political acts before they happen.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

San Francisco police use violent career criminal as informant

The San Francisco Weekly and the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute just released this indepth story about the SFPD's use of a high-level gang leader as an informant over several years: Cover of Darkness: S.F. Police turned a blind eye to some of the city's most dangerous criminals--who were also some of their most trusted soures. The story documents the clash between the S.F. police who protected their violent source in violation of their own policies, and the federal agents who ultimately arrested him. The debacle elicited scathing criticism from former law enforcement. From the story:
Thirty-year law enforcement veteran Chuck Drago and former police commissioner Peter Keane both believe that the existence of rogue informants for SFPD's specialized Gang Task Force and Narcotics Bureau indicates serious flaws in the department's internal checks and balances. (The SFPD's Narcotics Bureau, Gang Task Force, and Media Relations Office wouldn't comment on the department's handling of violent informants for this story.) "Somebody is dropping the ball in management," says Drago. "SFPD have let loose an unguided missile on the public" by allowing dangerous men like Sandoval (and, as we'll see, at least one other) to stay at large in spite of their offenses, says Keane. "No modern police force with any professionalism engages in that sort of practice anymore."

Friday, March 29, 2013

BBC World Service radio program on snitching in the U.S.

Here's an excellent new radio program on snitching by the British BBC, Snitching in the U.S.A. It includes stories of individual informants, interviews with law enforcement, attorneys, and families. A written magazine version is here. The report centers around the story of John Horner, a first-time offender currently serving a 25-year drug sentence in Florida. Mr. Horner became dependent on pain killers due to an eye injury, and was set up by an experienced informant. Horner tried to work the sentence off as an informant himself, but couldn't make enough arrests. He talks in detail about his experiences as an informant and how the system treated him.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Movie "Snitch"

Next week, a new movie entitled "Snitch" opens in theaters. It's based on a true story described in a 1999 Frontline documentary of the same name, in which a father becomes an informant to work off his son's mandatory drug sentence. Here's a link to the trailer.

Participant Media has created a great public information site to accompany the movie, with stats and stories about the drug war, mandatory minimums, and informants. Check it out: They've also made a hilarious mini-video about the crazy world of the war on drugs. Watch it here: SNITCH: Lock it Down America!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Death of a young Washington informant inspires new legislation

Jeremy McLean was a young informant who was threatened and eventually killed by a heroin trafficker. Jeremy's story--and his parents' lawsuit against the police-- was featured in the widely-read 2012 New Yorker article on the risky use of young informants. The Daily News subsequently ran this in-depth four-part series detailing the specifics of how Jeremy came to be an informant after he developed an addiction to pain medication, the threats against his life, and the police's inaction that contributed to his death: Death of an Informant, Part I.

In January, Washington State Senator Adam Kline introduced legislation, SB 5373, that would regulate the use of drug informants like Jeremy. The bill would ban the use of informants who are 16 years old and under, require police to tell informants about their obligations and potential rewards in writing, and establish new accountability mechanisms for keeping track of informant use. It's an important bill, particularly the restriction on using juvenile informants which few states currently have.