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.

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May 08, 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."

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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.

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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: www.TakePart.com/SNITCH. 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!

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December 12, 2012

Federal judge questions fairness of "substantial assistance" rules

The New York Times ran this story about the infamous case of Stephanie George: For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars. Ms. George became a poster child in 1997 for the unfairness of federal mandatory minimum sentencing when she received a lifetime sentence for a half kilo of cocaine that her former boyfriend had hidden in her attic.

Ms. George also became a prime example of how informing, or in federal parlance, providing "substantial assistance" to the government, can turn the justice system upside down. Ms. George's boyfriend--a cocaine dealer and ringleader--and other members of the drug ring received lower sentences than she did because they became informants. Because Ms. George had no information, she couldn't snitch and therefore U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson had no discretion to lower her sentence, a sentence that the judge himself considered draconian and unfair. From the story:

"[Stephanie George] was not a major participant by any means, but the problem in these cases is that the people who can offer the most help to the government are the most culpable," Judge Vinson said recently. "So they get reduced sentences while the small fry, the little workers who don't have that information, get the mandatory sentences."

Judge Vinson's comment reflects an intentional design feature of federal drug law. Because becoming an informant is the only way a defendant can avoid harsh mandatory minimums, snitching has become pervasive in the federal criminal system.

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November 02, 2012

Snitch team in Florida generates millions in forfeitures and DOJ investigation

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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October 17, 2012

Texas police pressure traffic violator into drug work

ABC News ran this story about a mother who was pulled over for traffic violations and then pressured into becoming a drug informant to avoid arrest. Story here: Cops Use Traffic Tix to Force Woman into Drug Buys, Lawyer Claims. This is the same scenario reported in Attica, New York, where another young woman was pressured into becoming a drug informant when she was stopped for failing to pay traffic tickets. See this post: Recruiting new informants. Such stories remind us that police have discretion to use any opportunity--even a speeding ticket--to recruit new informants, even when the offense is minor or has nothing to do with the crimes the police want to investigate.

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September 20, 2012

FOX News: slain mother was a working informant

FOX News ran this story about Jamie Seeger, a mother of two who was killed while working as an informant for a local sheriff's office in Florida. The family is suing in an effort to get more information. Story here: Slain mom was working for sheriff's office. Seeger's death may bring new scrutiny to the efficacy of Rachel's Law, which imposed new regulations on police creation and use of informants.

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September 07, 2012

More on young informants

The New Yorker article is generating new awareness and a lot of great discussion about young informants and the use of criminal informants more generally. TalkLeft discusses the overall challenges of informant use here: Informants as Pawns in the War on Drugs. NPR's Talk of the Nation did a special segment on the topic here: Use of Confidential Informants Mostly Unregulated.

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August 29, 2012

New Yorker story on young informants

The New Yorker has just published an important story on the use of young vulnerable informants. It discusses numerous cases in which young people have lost their lives trying to work off their own offenses, and reveals how common the practice is and how little protection the law and police typically provide. Synopsis here: The Throwaways: Police enlist young offenders as confidential informants. But the work is high-risk, largely unregulated, and sometimes fatal.

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July 30, 2012

An alternative to snitching for juvenile drug offenders?

Using juvenile offenders as informants can be the opposite of rehabilitation: it keeps young people in contact with criminal networks and can exacerbate drug use and other dangerous behaviors. See this post on a Miami juvenile informant. But a new "restorative justice" approach in Texas offers a different model, in which juveniles charged with serious drug offenses are offered a chance at rehabilitation and skills training. Here's the NYTimes article: New Home for Juveniles Recruited to the Drug Trade. Almost no states regulate the law enforcement policy of turning young people into informants (see Dennis, Juvenile Snitches); the Texas experiment reminds us that the juvenile system is first and foremost supposed to be rehabilitative.

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May 14, 2012

Law review article on Rachel's Law

The Boston College Journal of Law & Social Justice has published this note, Toward Efficiency and Equity in Law Enforcement: "Rachel's Law" and the Protection of Drug Informants. It focuses on an important provision in Rachel's Law that was eliminated, that would have required police to provide potential informants with counsel. Here's the abstract:

Following the murder of Rachel Morningstar Hoffman--a 23-year old college graduate--Florida passed "Rachel’s Law," which established new guidelines for the police when dealing with confidential informants. Immediately prior to its enactment, lawmakers stripped Rachel's Law of key provisions. These provisions required police to provide a potential informant with an attorney before agreeing to any deal. Opponents of these provisions argue that they hamstring law enforcement agencies in their efforts to prosecute drug crimes. Rather than serving as an obstacle to effective law enforcement, the attorney provision in the original version of Rachel's Law enables efficient prosecution of crimes and protects minor drug offenders who may be unsuited for potentially dangerous undercover informant work. This Note recommends that the attorney provision be restored to Rachel's Law, and encourages other states to enact similar statutes.

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March 23, 2012

Miami New Times series on juvenile informant

Enriquez Bosco was 15 years old when he became an informant for the police, providing information against one of Miami's most notorious gangs. This three-part series in the Miami New Times documents Bosco's travails--including drug addition, rape, and ultimately deportation--from which his handlers failed to protect him and in some cases, may have brought on. From Part 2 of the story:

Enriquez's story begins and ends in Nicaragua, where he was exiled this past June. Though he had cooperated with Miami police to bust as many as 30 gang members -- including leaders of the infamous International Posse -- authorities allowed him to be beaten, raped, and exiled to the country of his birth with barely a mention of his service. His crime: a guilty plea to possessing traces of cocaine, a third-degree felony that required two days in jail. It resulted from a long-ago drug habit that started when police employed him to make a drug buy.

Juvenile informants often incur terrible risks with little or no protection from the legal system. For an indepth look at the phenomenon, see Andrea Dennis, "Collateral Damage? Juvenile Snitches in America's Wars on Drugs, Crime and Gangs," 46 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 1145 (2009).

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January 24, 2012

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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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.

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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

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August 02, 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.

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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.

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August 19, 2009

Police Internally Split on Confidentiality Issue

Thanks to Scott Henson from Grits For Breakfast for passing along this important story on a battle raging within the St. Louis police department. Rank-and-file police are refusing to provide information about their snitches to their own police supervisors and city police officials. Here's an excerpt:

Worried about liars in their ranks, city police officials are demanding that up to 20 officers tell bosses details about their confidential informers. But the St. Louis Police Officers Association has won a temporary restraining order to block the inquiry, pending a hearing in court next week. The organization says the probe would jeopardize informers' lives, officers' careers and public safety. At issue is whether officers have attributed fabricated information to confidential informers to obtain search and arrest warrants. Police brass acknowledge in court filings that they believe "one or more" officers "have included false information in affidavits" for warrants, and say the investigation is aimed at stopping "the concerns of police abuse and violation of civil rights."

Ironically, one of the officers' arguments against holding a public hearing is that if informants are called to testify, they will lie. These being the very same informants that police rely on to get the warrants in the first place.

The fact that street cops are at odds with their own police officials on this question reveals some deep dynamics about snitching, including what I call the culture of secrecy surrounding the entire practice. Police and their informants are heavily dependent on one another--police need information while offenders need protection against punishment. Police will often go a long way to protect their sources, famously from defendants and courts, but often from prosecutors and even sometimes from their own police supervisors. This does not mean that police handlers are necessarily corrupt: handling criminal informants inherently means doing unsavory things like ignoring their crimes, bending the rules, sometimes providing addicts with cash for drugs. However, the culture of secrecy makes illegal police conduct that much easier. See this NYT story on Brooklyn police who supplied their informants with drugs. Kudos to the St. Louis police officials who are trying to make the process more accountable and transparent.

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