April 01, 2014

Air Force academy pressures cadets into snitching

The Colorado Springs Gazette ran this extensive story about "a secretive Air Force program [that] recruits academy students to inform on fellow cadets and disavows them afterward." Story here: Honor and Deception, and also Fox News story here. The program--which pressures cadets, especially those of color, into violating Academy rules under pressure of expulsion--appears to exhibit the classic corrosive costs of informant culture. From the Gazette report:

For one former academy student, becoming a covert government operative meant not only betraying the values he vowed to uphold, it meant being thrown out of the academy as punishment for doing the things the Air Force secretly told him to do....Eric Thomas, 24, was a confidential informant for the Office of Special Investigations, or OSI -- a law enforcement branch of the Air Force. OSI ordered Thomas to infiltrate academy cliques, wearing recorders, setting up drug buys, tailing suspected rapists and feeding information back to OSI. In pursuit of cases, he was regularly directed by agents to break academy rules....Through it all, he thought OSI would have his back. But when an operation went wrong, he said, his handlers cut communication and disavowed knowledge of his actions, and watched as he was kicked out of the academy....The Air Force's top commander and key members of the academy's civilian oversight board claim they have no knowledge of the OSI program. The Gazette confirmed the program, which has not been reported in the media through interviews with multiple informants, phone and text records, former OSI agents, court filings and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The records show OSI uses FBI-style tactics to create informants. Agents interrogate cadets for hours without offering access to a lawyer, threaten them with prosecution, then coerce them into helping OSI in exchange for promises of leniency they don’t always keep. OSI then uses informants to infiltrate insular cadet groups, sometimes encouraging them to break rules to do so. When finished with informants, OSI takes steps to hide their existence, directing cadets to delete emails and messages, misleading Air Force commanders and Congress, and withholding documents they are required to release under the Freedom of Information Act. The program also appears to rely disproportionately on minority cadets like Thomas.

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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."

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June 29, 2012

NYT Magazine on the complexity of snitching

Some of you may remember Alex White, the Atlanta informant who revealed the police corruption that killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston. This Sunday's NYT Magazine details the often unbelievable twists and turns of that saga, from Johnston's shooting to White's career as a snitch for multiple local and federal agencies, to the Congressional hearing and prosecutions that ensured. A great window into the police/informant world: A Snitch's Dilemma.

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May 14, 2012

In the news: Seattle ATF informant with history of crime against women

A story by the Seattle Times about an ATF informant with a disturbing history of violence against women: Violent criminal on federal payroll as informant. The story begins like this:

Despite a history of abusing women and violent behavior in prison, Joshua Allan Jackson managed to become a federal informant, trigger a citywide Seattle police alert and hold a 18-year-old woman as his sexual prisoner.

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Impact of 'Rachel's Law' on informant use

The Tallahassee Democrat has published this article about the effects of Rachel's Law on informant use in Florida, four years after the death of Rachel Hoffman: Four years later, Hoffman's death still impacts CI use. The article concludes that the Tallahassee police department made some significant changes.

For six months immediately following Hoffman's death, the department suspended the use of all CIs. For a long time, no one wanted to work narcotics cases, which often rely on informants, the chief said.

"We had to be confident in our investigators that they were ready," [Chief] Jones said.

An audit of department confidential-informant files conducted about six months after Hoffman was killed found lax record keeping and noted areas of improvement. Personnel were moved, the vice unit was made a part the Criminal Investigations Division of a new Special Investigation Section and supervision was stepped up.

Today, TPD's rules governing the handling of confidential informants mirror that of Rachel's Law, which was spearheaded by Hoffman's parents and provides some safeguards for vulnerable informants.

"I think we've got a very good policy now," Jones said. "We have elevated ourselves and are back in the lead and set the tone for the state."


Tallahassee is reminiscent of Los Angeles in the 1990s. After a massive grand jury investigation concluded that the jail was rampant with unreliable informants and that police and prosecutors were relying on them, the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office instituted significant changes. Today, it has some of the most rigorous regulations for the tracking and use of jailhouse informants in the country: Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office Legal Policies Manual.

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March 07, 2012

The way it's supposed to work: organizational informants

The strongest arguments for informant use are connected to the nature of criminal organizations: informants permit the government to get information about, infiltrate, and destabilize group criminal activity. The most famously effective such deployment was the FBI's use of informants to go after the mafia, a success story that is often invoked in support of informant use more generally. Of course even that success story had its costs: see this post on the dangers of mafia informants.

These tactics are now on display in several recent cases regarding insider trading and computer hacking, in which the use of informants has not only permitted prosecution of individual wrongdoers but may be weakening the culture of collective wrongdoing itself. According to this Reuters report, "[t]he FBI says it has enough informants lined up to keep its investigations of suspected illegal insider trading at hedge funds going for at least five more years." The New York Times opines that the conversion of a leading hacker into an informant "will sow even more distrust and dissension in the ranks of [the international hacker movement]." In both communities, the knowledge that colleagues and peers may be informants could well chill criminal activity. At the same time, the government should be careful not to send the message that becoming an informant is a get-out-of-jail-free card, a double-message that could undermine deterrence. See this post.

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February 08, 2012

FOX News story on informants in Boston

FOX Undercover in Boston ran this story on the dangers of informant use: Informants cutting deals to continue lives of crime. Congressman Stephen Lynch was interviewed for the story. Lynch is the author of the Confidential Informant Accountability Act, see this post. When asked whether he was worried that informants get a "free pass," here is what he said:

"It's worse than that. They get a free pass to continue their criminal enterprise. They get protection, basically amnesty. I just think there's a corrosive element to this confidential informant program."

By contrast, former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan focused on the benefits that informants can provide when investigating corrupt organizations:
"Particularly as you're looking at things like organized crime, they played a critical role with regard to putting matters together in order to infiltrate the organization. It took a long time for the government to penetrate these organizations, and they did it initially by using informants, finding people who had some vulnerabilities and then exploiting those vulnerabilities and getting them to become government cooperators."

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September 16, 2011

New York officers sued for failing to protect informant

The mother of a 20-year-old informant is suing two NYPD officers for failing to protect her son who was killed an hour and a half after he tipped off his handler to the location of some guns and drugs. Story here: Mom of slain informant Anthony Velez sues cops for failing to protect him. Such suits are rarely successful--courts have been reluctant to hold police accountable for the fate of their informants, even when the government contributes to the risk. See this post discussing the government's responsibility for the safety of its informants.

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Court considers orthodox jewish rule against informing

The Talmudic laws of mesira prohibited Jews from informing against other Jews to non-Jewish authorities. This ancient "no snitching" rule is getting modern attention in the Los Angeles case of Rabbi Moshe Zigelman, an Orthodox jew who is refusing to testify against other Jewish suspects before a grand jury regarding alleged acts of tax fraud and money laudering. Story here: Jewish law goes to court: Mesira meets American justice. The story describes the Talmudic issue this way:

The concept of mesira, which literally means "delivery," dates back to periods when governments often were hostile to Jews and delivering a Jew to the authorities could lead to an injustice and even death. The rules of mesira still carry force within the Orthodox world, owing both to the inviolability of the concept's talmudic origins and the insular nature of many Orthodox communities. But they are also the subject of debate over whether the prohibition applies in a modern democracy that prides itself on due process and civil rights.

This dispute dovetails with a large issue in criminal justice: what happens to the force of criminal law when people believe it is unfair or leads to injustice? Professor Tom Tyler has written extensively about the fact that people are more likely to obey the law if they perceive it to be be fair and carried out through evenhanded and respectful procedures. See, e.g., Tom Tyler & Jeffrey Fagan, Legitimacy and Cooperation: Why Do People Help the Police Fight Crime in Their Communities?, 6 Ohio St. J. of Criminal Law 231 (2008).

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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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June 16, 2011

Omaha murder trial sheds light on FBI criminal informants

One informant, Jorge Palacios, was a gang member suspected in a Los Angeles murder, and accused, although never charged, in the rape of a 13-year-old girl. The FBI paid him more than $300,000 over five years to help with drug investigations. The other informant, Cesar Sanchez, was caught dealing drugs. In exchange for allowing his auto shop to be used as the site of drug deals for the FBI to monitor, he earned between $50,000 and $100,000 and avoided deportation. This glimpse of the kinds of deals that the government strikes with criminal informants was on display in Omaha last week in the murder trial of Robert Nave, accused of killing Sanchez. The story, FBI tells of informant shooting, also reveals how law enforcement can be reluctant to probe the criminal behavior of their informants:

FBI agent Greg Beninato, who was Palacios' handler in Omaha, testified that the FBI knew that Palacios was the suspected driver and accomplice in the 2004 drive-by shooting of a rival gang member in Los Angeles, a charge for which he was recently arrested. Beninato also acknowledged that agents had heard accusations that Palacios may have been involved in the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl, though no charges were brought. At one point, Riley [the defense attorney] asked Beninato whether he questioned Palacios about the two cases in order to decide whether to continue using him as an informant. "No," Beninato said.

"Why not?" Riley asked.

"It's a fine line between getting involved in someone else's investigation," Beninato said. "I wasn't going to question him without the (investigating agencies') permission or their request to do so."

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June 15, 2011

St. Petersburg police to review informant policies after officer scandal

Police have nearly unfettered discretion when creating and handling informants. That authority is coming under scrutiny in St. Petersburg, Florida, after the FBI arrested Detective Anthony Foster for extorting thousands of dollars in cash and goods from his informant. Story here: St. Petersburg police to re-evaluate policy on confidential informants:

The FBI's criminal complaint against Foster depicts a detective with near unlimited discretion in his dealings with an informant. Foster texted and called the informer to demand payments in cash or gifts, such as a widescreen TV, Nike shoes and groceries. The FBI alleges Foster made clear in recorded conversations that, in exchange, he would get a reduced sentence for the informant, who had been arrested on a grand theft charge in Hernando County. . . .

The criminal complaint against Foster suggests that there are either few regulations in place or that they aren't always followed. For example, in Foster's effort to convince the assistant state attorney that the informant had helped him solve some cases, Foster had his sergeant call to corroborate his informant's value. The supervisor, according to the complaint, told the assistant state attorney that the informer helped in major homicide cases and was "more of a benefit out of jail rather than in jail." Later, the sergeant faxed a list of four major investigations -- including a March 23 murder -- in which the informer assisted. When the FBI showed the informer the list, however, the informer denied assisting in any of those cases.

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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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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).

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February 16, 2011

"Secret Justice" article

Here's an article I wrote for Prison Legal News entitled "Secret Justice: Criminal Informants and America's Underground Legal System." The article is a brief overview of many of the themes I cover in the book--here's the first paragraph:

Although it is almost invisible to the public, the use of criminal informants is everywhere in the U.S. justice system. From street corners to jails to courthouses to prisons, every year the government negotiates thousands of deals with criminal offenders in which suspects can avoid arrest or punishment in exchange for information. These deals typically take place off-the-record, subject to few rules and little oversight. While criminal informants-sometimes referred to as "snitches"-can be important investigative tools, using them has some serious costs: informants often continue to commit crimes, while the information they provide is infamously unreliable. Taken together, these facts make snitching an important and problematic aspect of the way America does justice.

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Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: punished for not snitching?

In this month's edition of the Monthly Review, Staughton Lynd offers this meditation on the famous Rosenbergs: Is There Anything More to Say about the Rosenberg Case? Lynd, himself a well-known anti-Vietnam War activist, quaker, historian, and attorney, argues that the Rosenbergs were executed in 1953 not so much for being part of a Russian spy ring, but because they--unlike other members of the ring--refused to give information to the govenment. From the article:

We should ask, "Why were the Rosenbergs punished so much more severely than others whose activities were comparable to theirs?" I believe Haynes and Klehr provide the answer. Each individual who "confessed" was required to do one thing more. He or she was also asked to identify ("finger") other individuals engaged in espionage. Thus, "Fuchs' confession in Britain led the FBI to Harry Gold in the United States. Gold's confession in turn...quickly led the FBI to Sgt. David Greenglass. Greenglass confessed to espionage and also implicated his wife, Ruth, and his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg." But, at this point, the FBI inquiry hit a snag, or what Haynes and Klehr call "stonewalling" by the Rosenbergs and Morton Sobell. That is to say, these three persons refused to snitch. ...

I offer the opinion that the Rosenbergs' execution was really all about their refusal to snitch. On the basis of a fifteen-year acquaintance with death row prisoners in Ohio, I can state that the refusal to snitch is one of the highest values of long-term prisoners. It is the essence of the "convict code." Refusal to snitch earns a prisoner recognition as a "solid convict." In contrast, the government wanted an unbroken chain of informants who would inform against their colleagues. When confronted by individuals who refused to confess or "deal," the government decided to send a message to all other potential informants by killing the Rosenbergs.

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January 14, 2011

Contract killer avoids death penalty by cooperating

Washington Times journalist Jim McElhatton has written another revealing story about the violent dynamics of snitching: this one on seven-time killer Oscar Veal who cooperated against the violent Washington DC drug gang that hired him. In exchange, Veal escaped the death penalty and was sentenced to 25 years, half of which he has already served. Story here: A killer deal: be a star witness, escape execution. Based on thousands of pages of newly obtained documents, the Times story offers a rare window into the secretive dynamics of such arrangements. From the story:

Veal, 39, shot and killed seven people. A contract killer for a large drug ring and murder-for-hire operation a decade ago, he cooperated with prosecutors and became a star witness for the government. Kevin Gray, the lead defendant in one case in which Veal testified, alone was convicted in Washington of taking part in a record 19 murders.

But there is a price to be paid for such testimony. Veal could have faced the death penalty. Instead, he has completed about half of a 25-year prison term -- less than four years for each of the execution-style murders he committed. At his 2005 sentencing, which has not been previously reported, a relative of one victim said she will pray until her dying breath that Veal never sees the streets again. And attorneys for the men he testified against portrayed him as a snitch willing to lie in court to save himself.


The Veal story starkly illustrates the trade-offs of the criminal informant deal. On the one hand, deals with murderers like Veal are one of the only ways the government can go after violent criminal organizations. On the other, society pays a significant price, not only because Veal will walk the streets again but because offenders like him know that the most heinous of crimes can be worked off in exchange for cooperation.

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November 23, 2010

FOX on the informant market

Here's a general story that ran yesterday on FOX in Memphis, Tennessee-- Informants Cashing in on Snitching. The piece focuses on informants, particularly drug informants, who earn money as well as leniency for their own offenses, and it highlights the informality and lack of rules that characterize the world of paid criminal snitching. From the story:

"Most of the informants we develop, are involved in criminal activity. You get your best information from people who have knowledge of the crimes or are being involved in committing the crimes," said [Sgt. Clay] Aitken [of the Shelby County Sheriff's Office.] Records on the number of informants and what they're paid is not made public by the sheriff's office. Aitken says informants are paid with seized drug money, not taxpayers' dollars. "I've seen informants get paid anywhere from $50 to thousands of dollars. But there's no set rate or set fee," said Aitken.

One of [the reporter's] law enforcement sources who has worked directly with informants, says he's personally seen a Mid-South informant get handed $50,000 cash for one tip that led to a huge drug bust but that's nothing compared to what the Feds can offer and he says informants have been known to shop their information around selling it to the highest bidder.

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October 19, 2010

Huffington Post on the Rachel Hoffman Story

Huffington Post has this story on the tragic death of Rachel Hoffman -- Lethal Sting: How the War on Drugs Killed a College Student.Journalist Vince Beiser unearths new details about the young woman who became a drug informant in Tallahassee and was killed during a sting. Her death led to the passage of important legislation in Florida last year, which requires new police guidelines for the creation of informants--previous post here.

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September 30, 2010

What goes around: violent snitch sentenced for shooting witness

When someone is a "longtime police informant," as the Seattle Post Intelligencer described Devaughn Dorsey, it means that person has had a long-term relationship with police and/or prosecutors in which the government has ignored his crimes, or lessened his punishment, in exchange for information. When that person also happens to be "one of Seattle's most violent criminals . . . [who] has shot no fewer than eight people since 1990," it illustrates the most troubling aspect of criminal informant use--that the government is tolerating crime from its information sources in pursuit of new cases. See this previous post --Violent robber-snitch formed new home invasion gang--discussing the dilemma of informants who continue to commit crime while working for the government.

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September 24, 2010

Young informant commits suicide

A significant problem that has not yet received sufficient attention: protecting young and vulnerable informants. This story in the Missoulian is about how police handled Colton Peterson, a suicidal 21-year-old who was working for them as a drug informant: "Family believes son's suicide partly caused by law enforcement's conscription as an informant." The story raises some of the same issues that caused Florida to pass "Rachel's law" after 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman was killed while working as an informant. See these previous posts: "Florida's 'Rachel's Law' offers some protection for informants" and "Recruiting new informants." Under Florida's new law, police must now consider certain minimum factors before recruiting a person as an informant, including the person's "age and maturity," and "whether the person has shown any indication of emotional instability." My deepest condolences to Colton's parents, Juliena Darling and Frank Peterson.

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August 13, 2010

Informant lawsuit against FBI offers window into messy world of anti-terrorism

By the end of his stint working for the FBI, informant Craig Monteilh was earning over $11,000 a month to secretly film and record worshippers at the Islamic Center of Irvine, California. Monteilh, who has a lengthy rap sheet of his own, is now suing the FBI for allegedly instructing him to plead guilty to criminal charges of grand theft so as to maintain his cover. The Associated Press report on Monteilh's lawsuit reveals details of the informant's world that the public rarely gets to see, particularly the government's ability to use private individuals/informants to obtain information that the government would otherwise need evidence of wrongdoing and a warrant to obtain: US Judge gives informant time to amend FBI lawsuit. From the story:

In court papers and his ACLU declaration, [Monteilh] says he was asked to work as an informant for local law enforcement in 2004, when he became friendly with some police officers in a local gym. By 2006, he was promoted to the FBI's counterterrorism operations. Monteilh alleges he gathered phone numbers and contact information for hundreds of Muslim-Americans and recorded thousands of hours of conversation using a device on his key fob or cell phone during his stint with the FBI. His said his handlers told him to work out with Muslims at gyms, asked him to get codes for security systems so they could enter mosques at night and encouraged him to ask mosque members about "jihad" and supporting terrorist operations abroad. In June 2007, however, mosque members became suspicious of Monteilh and requested a restraining order, saying that he had spoken repeatedly about engaging in jihad.

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July 27, 2010

Huffington Post on the dangers of being a snitch

Cameron Douglas (actor Michael's Douglas's son) got a lot of press for his drug conviction and his cooperation with the government, which apparently cut his ten year sentence in half. See also NY Post story here: Douglas ratted on dealers. Now the Huffington Post points out that as an acknowledged informant, Douglas "is likely to face a very tough time in prison." From Anthony Papa's (Drug Policy Alliance) post:

From my experience as someone who served 12 years in New York's Sing Sing state prison -- one of the most dangerous prisons in America -- I know that Cameron Douglas is in a world of trouble. Once a prisoner is labeled as a "snitch," their life in prison suddenly changes and is in immediate danger. In prison a snitch is frowned upon and is at the bottom of the hierarchy of prison life. Until this point, it seemed that Douglas was living a pretty comfortable life in the camp at Lewisberg. Minimum security institutions have dormitory housing, a relatively low staff-to-inmate ratio, and limited or no perimeter fencing. Douglas's status will likely change as soon as his life is threatened. Once this happens, his entire world will turn upside down, and he will be transferred to protective custody.

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July 18, 2010

Another jailhouse snitch drives a homicide investigation

Today's Akron Beacon Journal reports on new developments in the Neal Rankin murder case: "DNA results may give inmate a new trial." The police had a lot of trouble identifying a suspect back in 1993--according to the commander of the homicide unit, they had "45 suspects the first day," and murder charges were brought and then dropped against several defendants. Finally, over a year after the murder, the government charged Dewey Amos Jones with the crime based on an allegation from a jaihouse snitch that Jones had confessed to him. I include the story not only because it is yet another example of a shaky case built on compensated snitch testimony, but because it illustrates how powerful an informant's allegations can be. Here, a jailhouse snitch got authorities to focus on Jones long after the crime, and without any direct evidence of his guilt. Jones is represented by the Ohio Innocence Project.

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June 15, 2010

"Three will set you free"

A carwash attendant explained to me that this was the saying in his old neighborhood (he wouldn't say where he was from). It means that if you are charged with a felony but can give the government information about three other people, they will "set you free."

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June 11, 2010

At least five imprisoned based on lying drug informant

Watch this video news clip from WINK-TV News (an ABC affiliate) in Florida: "Convicted felon: lying confidential informant sent me to prison." The informant, Shakira Redding, admitted that she set up innocent people by fabricating drug deals: she'd buy drugs in advance and hide them on her body to provide to the drug task force as "evidence" after the alleged deals. The government had promised her money, a home, and custody of her children if she provided incriminating evidence against others. Romill Blandin was one of Redding's innocent targets who spent 20 months in prison after Redding made a video of a man in a car that she claimed was Blandin, and then picked Blandin out of a line-up. Tellingly, Blandin never saw the video before he pled guilty--his public defender told him that he couldn't see it unless he went to trial and that his criminal record made it likely that the jury would convict him. He chose to plead guilty instead of risking a longer sentence.

This story is an almost exact replay of the Hearne, Texas debacle in which a confidential informant working for the local drug task force set up dozens of innocent African Americans. The Hearne case was the subject of the movie "American Violet," and an ACLU lawsuit. Here's the description from the book's introduction:

In the economically troubled town of Hearne, Texas, 27-year-old criminal informant Derrick Megress wreaked havoc. In November, 2000, a federally-funded drug task force swept through the town arresting twenty-eight people, mostly residents of the Columbus Village public housing project. Megress, a suicidal former drug dealer on probation facing new burglary charges, had cut a deal with the local prosecutor. If he produced at least 20 arrests, Megress's new charges would be dropped. He'd also earn $100 for every person he helped bust. One of his innocent victims was waitress Regina Kelly, mother of four, who steadfastly refused to plead guilty and take a deal for probation even as she sat in jail for weeks. Another target, Detra Tindle, was actually in the hospital giving birth at the time that Megress alleged that she had sold him drugs. A lie detector test finally revealed that Megress had lied--mixing flour and baking soda with small amounts of cocaine to fabricate evidence of drug deals. Charges against the remaining Hearne suspects were dropped, although several had already pleaded guilty.

Such stories are not aberrations; drug task forces are large-scale users of criminal informants in which the risks of fabrication are high. Massachusetts, for example, reports that in 2005-2006 its federally-funded drug taskforces relied on over 2000 confidential informants who made 45 percent of the taskforces' controlled buys.

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May 24, 2010

Cycling world grapples with "snitching"

Lest you think that "stop snitching" is confined to inner-city neighborhoods plagued by drug violence, check out this San Diego Union Tribune story, "Whistle Blower or Snitch?", in which the sports world reacts to Floyd Landis's doping allegations against other cyclists. The New York Times a few days ago reported that Landis "has agreed to cooperate with authorities in the United States." The debate is raging over whether Landis did a good thing (exposed illegal doping) or a shabby thing (sold out his colleagues to evade responsibility for his own wrongdoing).

Although criminal charges have not been filed against Landis, he may still benefit in that regard. Offenders routinely cooperate in order to stave off criminal charges. Indeed, according to renowned white collar defense attorney Kenneth Mann, one of the biggest benefits of cooperation is the ability to shape the pre-indictment process. Landis's new status as potential witness rather than target may be one of his biggest gains.

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May 17, 2010

Do jurors ignore informant rewards?

One of the central justifications for the use of compensated criminal witnesses is the idea that juries can evaluate informant credibility in ways that lead to fair and reliable outcomes. Specifically, the Supreme Court held that rewarding criminals for testimony is constitutional, relying in part on the procedural protections of discovery, cross-examination, and jury instructions. The idea is that the government can constitutionally reward its witnesses as long as the defense knows about it and the jury is properly instructed.

Recent psychological research throws some doubt on this idea. Dr. Jeff Neuschatz and a number of other psychologists published the following paper: The Effects of Accomplice Witnesses and Jailhouse Informants on Jury Decision Making, Law & Human Behavior 32 (2008): 137-149. They concluded that jurors who were told that a witness was getting a deal (and therefore had an incentive to lie) were just as likely to convict as jurors who didn't know that the witness was being compensated. Moreover, the bare fact that an informant said there was a confession made the jury more likely to convict. From the article:

First, both college and community samples demonstrated that conviction rates were unaffected by the explicit provision of information indicating that the witness received an incentive to testify. Second, and consistent with the research on confession evidence in the courtroom, the presence of a confession, albeit a secondary confession, had a significant influence on mock juror conviction rates. More specifically, in every witness type
and across both college and community samples, mock jurors convicted significantly more often when there was a secondary confession provided by a cooperating witness than when no such witness had testified....
Even though the witness in the incentive condition had an enormous motivation to fabricate evidence (having been provided a situational incentive to testify), jurors appeared to ignore this information and render verdicts that were not significantly different across the Incentive and No Incentive conditions. The participants may not have recognized or considered the impact that an incentive might have on behavior and/or the willingness to provide accurate and truthful information. Furthermore, participants did not have significantly different ratings of truthfulness or trustworthiness across the Incentive and No Incentive conditions.

This is an important finding. The system assumes that jurors who are told that an informant is getting a deal will be less likely to believe the informant and less likely to convict. This study suggests not only that this isn't so, but that just having a criminal informant testify to a confession significantly enhances the likelihood of a conviction.

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May 10, 2010

Primetime: U.S. customs authorizes informant to import cocaine

Another large-scale informant crime spree, this one courtesy of a Grits comment. In this story, ABC News Primetime documented how U.S. Customs authorized its informant, Rodney Matthews, to import tons of cocaine into the U.S., much of which ended up on the streets. Here's the link to the Primetime transcript. Caught with a few hundred pounds of marijuana, Matthews became a Customs informant and starting importing cocaine with the government's blessing. While all the Customs officials interviewed acknowledged that such deals are routine, they disputed whether the drugs were permitted by the government to hit the streets: Agent Tom Grieve said it wasn't authorized, while Mark Conrad of Customs internal affairs concluded that Grieve was lying to cover up the debacle. From the transcript:

FORREST SAWYER (Primetime) Was there anything said, anything that could have been in your wildest imagination misinterpreted to mean that Rodney Matthews could bring in a load and let it hit the streets?

AGENT TOM GRIEVE No. Not hit the streets. No, no, no, no. No. See, that's-no, n o.

FORREST SAWYER Tom Grieve says that there was no carte blanche, nothing like carte blanche.

MARK CONRAD, US CUSTOMS INTERNAL AFFAIRS Tom Grieve is simply a liar.

FORREST SAWYER ( VO ) Mark Conrad runs internal affairs for Customs in Houston. A 27-year veteran, Conrad spoke to PrimeTime in New York over the objections of the Customs Service.

MARK CONRAD We got in bed with Rodney Matthews and the importation of a humongous amount of narcotics coming into the United States.

FORREST SAWYER And the reason wasn't because they were dirty?

MARK CONRAD No. The reason is there's a great deal of pressure on agents in the field to make cases, to make the big one. And the bigger, the better.

FORREST SAWYER ( VO ) In fact, more than a dozen agents and former drug enforcement officials told us that letting dope hit the streets is the cost of doing business, that while the Matthews case is extreme, it's just the tip of the iceberg.

Matthews' former partner Jimmy Ellard got an even more dramatic deal. He had fled to Colombia and became a top transporter for drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. When he was caught in Florida, Ellard pled guilty to importing $6 billion [sic] worth of drugs into the U.S., and orchestrating a fatal airplane bombing. Ellard earned leniency by accusing several Customs officials of corruption. The officials were exonerated; Ellard served only six years in prison.

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Violent robber-snitch formed new home invasion gang

Thanks to Grits for Breakfast for this story from the Dallas Morning News:

A confessed robber out on bond after he masterminded a series of violent North Texas home invasions apparently formed a new gang and went right back to his old ways.
In February 2008, William Sedric Autrey reached a plea deal with prosecutors and agreed to work as an undercover informant against others in a gang believed responsible for dozens of home invasions and burglaries between 2005 and 2008.
He was out on bond for almost two years, after negotiating a plea deal to ensure he would not spend more than 15 years behind bars. Authorities say that while he was free, Autrey, 41, formed a new gang that burst into houses, exchanged gunfire with a Dallas homeowner and burglarized and robbed almost two dozen homes around the area since November.

By now the story of criminal informants who continue to commit crimes while working for the government is depressingly familiar news; see, for example, these posts: Killer FBI Informant, and House of Death informant and Committing Crime While Working for the Government. Ongoing crime is an inherent feature of the snitching phenomenon, at least in the U.S. (some countries formally restrict their governments' authority to tolerate informant crime, but the U.S. is not yet one of them.) Accordingly, we need to figure out whether snitching is worth it. Do we solve more crimes than we permit with these deals? When criminal informants re-offend, can we tell the victims that their suffering produced a greater good? In Dallas, the prosecutor said that Autrey "'cooperated and helped get indictments on cases that involved hundreds of thousands of dollars' in mortgage fraud, student loan fraud and other white-collar crimes. He also said that Autrey continued to work with authorities on violent crimes, including some home invasion robberies committed by other people." Is that worth the dozens of robberies that Autrey continued to commit, including one in which robbers shot at a homeowner, and another in which they tied up a 15-year-old girl?
We can't have a full public debate about these questions because the government doesn't produce the data--we don't know how many crimes informants commit and solve. This is a central reason why I argue that data collection and transparency reforms are so fundamental. As I wrote in the book's introduction:
"The most important [snitching reform] is the most difficult: changing the culture of secrecy and deregulation that permits informants and officials alike to bend rules, evade accountability, and operate in secret. It is this culture that fosters snitching's worst dangers: wrongful convictions, unchecked criminal behavior, official corruption, public deception, and the weakened legitimacy of the criminal process in the eyes of its constituents. It is also the feature that prevents us from addressing the ultimate public policy questions with clarity. The system currently handles the problem by asking us to accept on faith that unregulated snitching is worth its risks, without either demonstrating its full benefits or revealing its true costs. For a public policy of this far-reaching importance, such faith is not enough."

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April 26, 2010

Snitches killing snitches

Here's a story of violent irony. Last Friday, two young New Jersey women were sentenced for participating in the execution of a friend--Latyria Nealy--because the gang to which all three women belonged thought Nealy might be snitching. Having lured Nealy to her death on suspicion of being a snitch, one of the women, Nikki Moore, then became an informant herself, providing "significant, extensive, and comprehensive" cooperation which earned her two years off her 12-year sentence. The other defendant apparently also cooperated in some fashion but did not get any credit. Story here: Pair Sentenced in Gang Execution: Asbury Park Woman Killed for being a 'Snitch'. The irony, of course, lies in the cycle of violence in which people work off their sentences for killing suspected informants by becoming informants themselves. The deeper challenge is helping young people surrounded by crime who are caught in the middle--between violent gangs that threaten those who talk, and a criminal system that punishes those who remain silent.

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April 19, 2010

Jury finds police violated victim's rights by using false "snitch" label

Last week, a federal jury decided that two Los Angeles police officers violated a young woman's constitutional rights by falsely labeling her a snitch--a label that led to her death--and then failing to protect her. L.A. Times stories here and here. In an effort to get gang member Jose Ledesma to confess to a murder, police told him that Puebla had identified him as the shooter, even forging her signature on a fake photo array, although Puebla never identified Ledesma. At the same time, the jury found that Puebla and her parents also contributed to her death, and awarded no money to the family.

This is an interesting case for a number of reasons. First, the government is rarely held accountable for its use of or failure to protect informants, so the jury's conclusion that the police violated Puebla's constitutional rights by using her in the ruse and then failing to protect her could support future cases. Here is a link to the complaint in the case: Puebla v. Los Angeles, Case No. 08-3128. For another example of the trend(?) towards greater protection for informants--particularly young vulnerable ones--see this post on Florida's new informant legislation. At the same time, the Los Angeles jury apparently believed that Puebla and her family significantly contributed to her danger--finding the family 80% responsible and the police only 20% at fault. While it is unclear from the Times article why the jury came to this conclusion, the public and the criminal system often blame informants for their own injuries or even death, on the theory that they take the risk by becoming informants in the first place. In this case, the government argued that Puebla was killed, not because of the police ruse, but because she testified months later at a hearing in which she said that Ledesma was gang-affiliated.

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March 14, 2010

Even jurors were worried about informant reliability

On Friday, a Denver jury convicted Willie Clark in the killing of Denver Bronco Darrent Williams during a drive-by shooting. Much of the case, although not all, was based on the testimony of heavily rewarded criminal informants. Stories here and here. One witness in particular, Daniel "Ponytail" Harris, admitted to being in the car from which the bullets came, and testified that he saw Clark, and only Clark, shoot out the window at the limousine in which Williams was riding. Harris was facing a life sentence for an unrelated federal drug charge, but in exchange for his testimony, he will see that sentence cut down to five years. He will also avoid being prosecuted for the shooting himself. Another witness, gang member Vernone Edwards, will get a decade shaved off his crack-cocaine trafficking sentence. This sort of heavily compensated, self-serving testimony is one of the prime reasons that informant testimony has become such a problematic source of error. Three alternate and released jurors who spoke to reporters after the case was over said they did not believe Harris. One of the lead prosecutors in Harris's drug case candidly explained that prosecutors can only do their best to determine whether such witnesses are telling the truth.

It used to be that informant unreliability issues were litigated, if at all, on habeas, or by volunteer attorneys at innocence projects long after the case was over. Those days are coming to an end. With heightened public and media awareness of the problem, I predict that we will see more cases in which the problem of informant reliability is addressed early on in the process, at trial or on appeal, and not, as so often has happened in the past, as an afterthought or not at all.

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March 12, 2010

The tangled web of informant and handler

While we may never know what actually happened between DEA Agent Lee Lucas and his informant Jerrell Bray--a hazardous partnership that rocked Cleveland for the last few years-- their story reveals the many dangers that arise when law enforcement hitches its wagon to criminal snitches. In 2007, the Cleveland Plain Dealer began extensive reporting on allegations that Bray, a convicted killer and drug dealer, was using his relationship to the DEA to frame rivals and innocent people and that Agent Lucas had lied to make cases. Eventually, over a dozen convictions were reversed, including those of people who pleaded guilty. Story here. Bray was convicted of perjury and is currently serving 14 years; Agent Lucas was prosecuted for perjury and obstruction of justice. Last month, a jury acquitted Agent Lucas of all 18 charges. Story here. Law enforcement agents are rarely prosecuted for relying on bad informants, so the Plain Dealer's coverage offers a rare glimpse into the ways that an informant can shape--or deform--official decisions.

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February 15, 2010

"Used, Abused and Tossed": informants and immigration

Here's part 3 of the NPR series on informants--this one focuses on how ICE sometimes uses non-citizens as informants and then lets them be deported once they are no longer useful: Retired Drug Informant Says He Was Burned (NPR), and Informants can greatly aid US authories but still face deportation (LA Times). Deportation poses special dangers to informants, who may be killed upon returning to their home countries, in much the same way that domestic informants face special dangers in local jails and prisons or even on the streets. The government is under little legal obligation to protect its sources. For example, after he gave his FBI handler a tip, Charles Shuler was shot and paralyzed because the FBI blew his cover. A court dismissed Shuler's lawsuit, ruling that the FBI did not owe him protection. Stories like these reflect the more general phenomenon that informants who lack counsel, education, or other resources are often vulnerable to official exploitation.

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February 11, 2010

NPR series on "House of Death" informant

NPR is running a three-part series on the federal informant connected to the so-called House of Death murders that occurred six years ago in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico: The Case of a Confidential Informant Gone Wrong. For additional coverage of this story, see this 2007 Dallas Observer feature entitled House of Death. The informant, who was known as "Lalo" to his handlers, was working for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) even as he participated in drug-cartel-ordered executions. Top ICE officials deny knowledge of the murders and claim that "rogue agents" failed to follow guidelines, while Lalo's handler, Agent Raul Bencomo, says his supervisors knew about the killings. According to NPR, ICE withheld information about Lalo's role in the murders from the DEA and from Mexican officials. Former DEA Special Agent Phil Jordan describes the Lalo case as a disaster in which every rule was broken.

Even if the man was John Gotti in his prime, you do not allow an informant to run the investigation; you do not let the informant commit felonies, to commit murder. In my mind, he was given a license to kill.

Jordan testified in the now-defunct civil suit against ICE brought by relatives of the slain House of Death victims, two of whom were U.S. residents.

Lalo has been in federal custody for five years. Now that the case against Lalo's target is over, ICE is trying to deport him back to Mexico.

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February 07, 2010

The criminal informant model spreads to the SEC

The Los Angeles Times reports that the SEC wants to emulate the IRS's bounty program for rewarding criminal informants: SEC chief wants to catch investment scammers in the act. I posted about the IRS program here: IRS expands use of informants. This trend towards courting criminal informants in white collar investigations, as opposed to innocent whistleblowers, is part of a larger systemic culture in which guilt has become completely negotiable. The IRS, for example, used to balk at rewarding offending informants who actually participated in the wrongdoing, but its new rules make it easier to do. To be sure, there are immense informational benefits to using offenders as snitches--they tend to have more information than innocent bystanders. But it squarely raises one of the central compromises that has dogged criminal snitching in drug and mafia investigations, which is that the process can forgive and even reward serious wrongdoers. The IRS and SEC should think carefully about the extent to which they are willing to emulate the world of drug enforcement, in which guilt and punishment have become percevied as commodities, in which cooperation can become a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, and in which law enforcement is too often seen as tolerating crime and even violence from its informants in order to secure information.

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January 27, 2010

The Page 99 Test

Snitching is featured this week over on the Page 99 Test . The blog is driven by the writer Ford Madox Ford's adage: "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you." Page 99 of Snitching reads as follows:

Today's informant culture goes beyond the inquiry in any specific case about whether it might be dangerous to reveal the name of an informant or whether a particular investigation might be compromised by such revelations. Rather, the system is moving towards wholesale policies of keeping cases, dockets, and practices secret. Today, the potential threat to some witnesses is now seen by courts as a reason to overcome the presumption of openness for all criminal records.

In these ways, the practice of using informants undermines public transparency throughout the criminal system. By resolving liability in secret, it insulates investigative and prosecutorial techniques from judicial and legislative scrutiny. This reduced public access affects numerous other constituencies as well, making it more difficult for the press, crime victims, families, and policy analysts to obtain information about the workings of the justice system or about specific criminal cases. Informant use has thus become a powerful and destructive informational policy in its own right, reducing public transparency and obscuring the real impact of criminal practices on individuals, communities, and other institutions.

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January 13, 2010

Patt Morrison Show and L.A. Times investigative reporter Ted Rohrlich

Last week I did the Patt Morrison Show on KPCC (you can listen here), with prize-winning former L.A.Times investigative reporter Ted Rohrlich. Over the years he's done some great stories on informants. For example, in Trading Lies for Freedom, Rohrlich reported on several professional jailhouse snitches in the Los Angeles County jail system, including the now-infamous Leslie Vernon White of 60 Minutes fame. The piece describes the "variety of techniques" used by snitches to fabricate confessions:

To gather the information that will make a confession appear plausible, informants have used a variety of techniques, ranging from the artful to the crude. Some informants, for example, have carefully maintained files of newspaper and magazine articles on sensational criminal cases, or have stolen legal documents from the cells of other inmates. They have conned fellow prisoners, even those who have insisted on their innocence, into giving up key details of the cases against them. Some have pretended to be jailhouse lawyers offering free advice. Others merely have asked why someone is in jail, then transformed the most sincere protestations of innocence into admissions of guilt. Informants have purchased information from other informants for money, candy or cigarettes. Some informants have testified that they received inside information from police.

In Authorities Go Fishing for Jailhouse Confessions, Rohrlich described how some detectives purposefully placed suspects in the LA jail "snitch tank," hoping that the resident informants would come up with incriminating confessions. The story begins as follows:

The homicide detective thought he knew the identity of a murderer but couldn't prove it. To make his case, he wanted a confession. But his suspect wouldn't talk. Los Angeles Police Detective Philip Sowers did what one prosecutor said a lot of detectives do. He turned to the informant tank at Los Angeles County Jail for help. Sowers arranged for jailers to place his suspect, who was not an informant, in the special section of the jail reserved for informants -- inmates who habitually tell police that other inmates have confessed to murders or other serious crimes. Within days, Sowers had reports from four informants, known to detectives as "friendlies," that his suspect had confessed.

Finally, Rohrlich wrote a more recent piece on the Rampart scandal, entitled Scandal Shows Why Innocent Plead Guilty. This is a particularly important article because it describes a common but nearly invisible problem in the criminal system: how the plea bargaining process pressures innocent people to plead guilty.
Joseph Jones had quite a choice. He could plead guilty to selling drugs he had not sold and serve eight years in prison. Or he could risk being convicted at trial and, as a three-time loser, be sentenced to life. Ex-felon Miguel Hernandez was offered a similarly absurd "break." He could give up 16 months of his life by pleading guilty to possessing a weapon he had never had. Or he could demand a trial and face the possibility of four or more years in prison. In offering criminal defendants these kinds of Hobson's choices, prosecutors and judges did not set out to induce innocent men to plead guilty--although that is what they did. The prosecutors and judges merely accepted the word of Los Angeles police that the men were guilty.

While this piece tells the story of innocent people who pled guilty because police gave false information, a similar dynamic is at work when innocent people are confronted with false information from a snitch.

Each of these articles is important in its own right, shedding light on specific criminal justice failures. They also remind us that journalism plays a crucial role in maintaining the accountability of a criminal process that rarely volunteers information about its own mistakes.

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January 06, 2010

New Jersey Record: Right-wing radio host was an FBI informant

The New Jersey Record reports that ultra-right-wing radio host/blogger Hal Turner worked for over five years for the FBI. Turner was tried last month for threatening three federal appellate judges in Chicago: Judges Posner, Easterbrook, and Bauer. Turner's case ended in a mistrial and he is scheduled to be retried in March. According to the Record, Turner was paid and coached by the FBI while he broadcast neo-Nazi and white supremacy views over the radio and internet:

As Turner took to his radio show and blog to say that those who opposed his extremist views deserve to die, he received thousands of dollars from the FBI to report on such groups as the Aryan Nations and the white supremacist National Alliance, and even a member of the Blue Eyed Devils skinhead punk band. Later, he was sent undercover to Brazil where he reported a plot to send non-military supplies to anti-American Iraqi resistance fighters. Sometimes he signed "Valhalla" on his FBI payment receipts instead of his own name.
His dual life of shock jock and informant offers a window into the murky realm of domestic intelligence in the years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks — in particular, the difficult choices for the FBI in penetrating controversial fringe groups with equally controversial informants. In interviews, he said the FBI coached him to make racist, anti-Semitic and other threatening statements and now he feels double-crossed by the bureau after his arrest. The documents reviewed by The Record, however, show repeated instances of federal agents admonishing Turner for his extremism.

Government support for active informants often creates this kind of chicken-and-egg problem. It is hard to know whether the informants would have committed their new offenses if they hadn't felt protected or authorized by the government. Cooperating drug dealers, for example, often assert that their government handlers condone their ongoing illegal activities. Similarly, the Record reports that Turner's threatening rhetoric towards the federal bench was affected, at least in his mind, by his relationship with the FBI:
Turner blames the FBI, saying that while agents never said he could threaten judges, they coached him on the limits of what he could say. As a result, Turner said he felt he had wide latitude. "I was given specific instructions," he said.

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Afghan suicide bomber was informant-double-agent

The NY Times reports here and here that the Jordanian militant who killed numerous CIA and Jordanian intelligence operatives was considered by the CIA to be one of its most promising informants. From the Times:

American intelligence officials said Tuesday they had been so hopeful about what the Jordanian might deliver during a meeting with C.I.A. officials last Wednesday at a remote base in Khost that top officials at the agency and the White House had been informed that the gathering would take place.

Instead, the discovery that the man, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, also known as Humam Khalil Mohammed, was a double agent and the killing of seven C.I.A. operatives in the blast were major setbacks to a spy agency that has struggled to gather even the most ephemeral intelligence about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.


Terrorism informants represent the most extreme version of the snitching gamble: the government's hope that working with criminal insiders will produce more benefits than are lost by tolerating the informant's own criminal activities. In the terrorism arena, the gamble appears especially necessary. As the Times points out,
few criticized the agency's impulse to chase any credible lead about the locations of Al Qaeda's top leaders. "This is the C.I.A's top priority, and when I was in Afghanistan, if any intelligence came about the possible whereabouts of Zawahri or bin Laden, you dropped everything to run it to ground," said a former senior C.I.A. officer. "Everyone would have wanted to be on the team that caught Zawahri. That's the kind of thing that makes careers."

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Lawyer-informant wears wire to record inmate

This post from TalkLeft "Govt Wires Lawer as Informant to Tape and Incriminate Inmate" describes the disturbing story of defense attorney Terry Haddock who secretly recorded more than 30 conversations with inmate Shannon Williams who has now been charged with money laundering. Haddock says he told Williams that he (Haddock) wasn't acting as his lawyer; Williams says he hired Haddock to represent him. I argue in the book that the spread of snitching has affected the role of the defense attorney--this is a prime example. From TalkLeft:

Even if Haddock told Williams he wasn't representing Williams in the lawsuit, if he gave advice on it, it seems reasonable that Williams would think Haddock was providing legal counsel to him and that they had a privileged relationship. It's not a requirement of the lawyer client privilege that the lawyer officially you in a court proceeding.

Of course, when a lawyer participates in the client's crime, the crime-fraud exception to the attorney-client privilege kicks in and the privilege no longer applies. But it's one thing for the client and lawyer to agree together to violate the law, and another for the cops on their own to get the lawyer to pretend to to agree with the client to violate the law. The latter, even if legal, seems morally bankrupt.

After all, why would Williams trust Haddock with the illegal details of his business? Because he trusted him. Why did he trust him? Because he thought he was his lawyer.

Whether it turns out to be legal or not, it's a really crummy way to make a pot and money laundering case. While I'm not shocked the U.S. Attorney's office and police department used the tactic, I can think of no justifiable excuse for Haddock. Like Pignatelli, he brings shame to the legal profession, and if only one defendant out there reads about Haddock and decides not to trust his or her lawyer with the truth, hindering their lawyer's ability to mount an effective defense, it's one person too many.

Some things are more important than catching drug dealers, and the public's faith in the sanctity of the attorney-client privilege is one of them.

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December 23, 2009

FBI informants infiltrating Muslim communities

The New York Times just ran this piece entitled Muslims Say FBI Tactics Sow Anger and Fear. The piece describes the perennial tension between law enforcement's need to gather information and the needs and rights of groups and communities against whom informants are used. From the article:

Since the terror attacks of 2001, the F.B.I. and Muslim and Arab-American leaders across the country have worked to build a relationship of trust, sharing information both to fight terrorism and to protect the interests of mosques and communities. But those relations have reached a low point in recent months, many Muslim leaders say. Several high-profile cases in which informers have infiltrated mosques and helped promote plots, they say, have sown a corrosive fear among their people that F.B.I. informers are everywhere, listening. "There is a sense that law enforcement is viewing our communities not as partners but as objects of suspicion," said Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, who represented Muslims at the national prayer service a day after President Obama's inauguration. "A lot of people are really, really alarmed about this."

The book's section on political informants discusses the law and history of this longstanding tension. On the legal side, the government has substantial authority to use informants to monitor religious and political activities. Notwithstanding the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech and association, courts have made clear that the use of informants and infiltrators alone does not infringe the First Amendment rights of political or religious groups. This means that the FBI can legally send informants into mosques and churches to observe people and events. If those informants go further and actively interfere with constitutionally protected activities, the First Amendment may be violated.

The implications of informant infiltration, however, go beyond legal rules. Cases from the Vietnam War and civil rights eras describe how government informants undermined anti-war, civil rights, socialist, and other political organizations by provoking conflict and instigating illegal activities. Thirty years ago, MIT sociology professor Gary Marx wrote a seminal piece on the informant provocateur phenomenon entitled "Thoughts on a Neglected Category of Social Movement Participant: The Agent Provocateur and the Informant," 80 Am. J. Sociol. 402 (1972). Marx argued that informants can actually become an integral and problematic part of social organizations, warning that "undercover agents can seriously distort the life of a social movement; they can serve as mechanisms of containment, prolongation, alteration, or repression."

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December 14, 2009

IRS expands use of informants

Two fascinating stories from Forbes on the IRS's expanded Whistleblower Office: Tax Informants are on the Loose, and IRS Ordered to Surrender Informant Documents. In 2006, Congress told the IRS to start paying informants as much as 30% of delinquent taxes collected in big cases, and the scale of snitching has skyrocketed. As Forbes puts it:

The gambit seems to be working very well. The IRS continues to get thousands of small case tips a year. But in fiscal 2009, ended Oct. 30, the IRS Whistleblower Office also logged big case leads on 1,900 taxpayers, up from 1,246 in fiscal 2008, the first full year the new law was in effect. Dozens of these tips involve purported tax losses of $100 million or more. Sure, those are just allegations. But informants "often provide extensive documentation to support their claims,"' the Whistleblower Office noted in a report. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, in a separate report, added up all the 2008 tips and found that $65 billion in unreported income was alleged.

Perhaps the most famous case to date involves Bradley Birkenfeld, an employee of the Swiss bank UBS who gave the IRS information on how wealthy Americans were hiding money with his employer. Although Birkenfeld himself faces a 40-month prison sentence, he may be able to keep millions in reward money--another new rule. Again from Forbes:
Before the new law, [IRS Whistleblower Officer Director Stephen] Whitlock notes, "if you participated in the tax noncompliance--you could have been the accountant doing the ministerial activity--you could be flat-out barred" from a reward. Now such a functionary is eligible for a full reward, even if he is convicted of, say, stealing from the company he squeals on. An informant who "planned and initiated" a tax scheme is still eligible for a reduced award--unless he's convicted for that planning role.

In other words, the IRS is moving closer to the snitching norm, in which admitted criminals reap benefits from their cooperation. At the same time, the IRS informant program may be running into resistance. In the second story, a federal judge has ordered the IRS to return documents provided by an informant who stole the documents from the company Monex. Apparently the court was not content to let the government decide which stolen Monex documents were privileged, although the government is likely to get many of the documents back in the end. As Forbes frames the problem, "How far can the government go in using information from an insider and what should be the procedures for handling that information?" As I explain in the book, this concern for the privacy and rights of criminal targets--and the concomitant restrictions on informant use--is more characteristic of white collar investigations in which defendants tend to be well-resourced and well-defended, and is notably lacking in the street- and drug-enforcement arena.

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November 30, 2009

Infamous "fake-drug scandal" informant re-convicted in Dallas

In 2001 in Dallas, Channel 8 TV and the Dallas Morning News revealed how a ring of police and their paid narcotics informants planted fake drugs (gypsum) on innocent Latino immigrants in order to inflate department drug bust statistics. Many of those innocent victims were deported before the scam was discovered. Now the main informant in that ring--Enrique Martinez Alonso--has been convicted again, this time for counterfeiting. See this post from GritsforBreakfast for an overview; here's the story from the Dallas News. This story is a classic example of how snitches can leverage cooperation to avoid punishment for ongoing serious crimes. Not only did the six informants led by Alonso earn $440,000 for their roles in the fake drug scandal, but Alonso's subsequent criminal sentences were drastically reduced because of his cooperation with authorities--he served five years before being deported in 2007, while his brother received a 20-year sentence. As Grits points out:

Enrique was always portrayed by the media and officialdom as the main informant working with Delapaz (and the seven other officers who allegedly faked field tests claiming Alonso's drugs were real), so it's somewhat shocking to learn he received a sentence only 25% of his brother's. That's a steep discount for his second stint as an informant - this time against his co-conspirators and police "handlers." This fellow keeps being compensated for snitching on others - by Dallas police, by the feds - even when he appears to be at the center of the criminal activity in question.

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November 10, 2009

Recruiting new informants

Here's a revealing article in the Buffalo News: Walking thin line in Village of Attica: Would-be informant says police coerced her into cooperation. It's about Bianca Hervey, a 20-year-old college student who got pulled over by police for failing to pay her traffic tickets. The police threatened to put her in jail for the night, unless she agreed to become a drug informant. Although Hervey did not use drugs or have any connections to the drug world, police told her it didn't matter--she could still work as a snitch and try to set people up. Frightened of going to jail, Hervey signed the informant agreement. When she told her father, attorney Richard Furlong, what had happened, however, he "went ballistic." Furlong went to the police and to the City of Attica and complained about the recruitment of young people into the world of drugs, but the police and the Village Board refused to change the policy.

This story illustrates how snitching has quietly become such an immense part of the criminal justice system. Many cities have policies like Attica's, in which police can recruit any potential offender as a drug informant--even a 20-year-old guilty of nothing more than a traffic violation. It was this same type of policy that led to the death of 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman in Tallahassee, Florida, and triggered Florida's ground breaking legislation on the subject of informant-creation. See post: Florida's "Rachel's Law" offers some protections for informants.

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October 27, 2009

"ICE agents mishandle informants"

The Associated Press reports that the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency is having the same sorts of informant problems that its FBI and DEA counterparts have long struggled against. Here's an excerpt from the story:

One immigration agent was accused of running an Internet pornography business and enjoying an improper relationship with an informant. Another let an informant smuggle in a group of illegal immigrants. And in a third case, an agent was investigated for soliciting sex from a witness in a marriage fraud case.
These troubling misdeeds are a sampling of misconduct by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel as the agency seeks to carve out a bigger role in the deadly border war against Mexican drug gangs.
According to documents obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, ICE agents have blundered badly in their dealings with informants and other sources, covering up crimes and even interfering in a police investigation into whether one informant killed another.

I blogged about this last incident a couple of months ago--see Informants Killing Informants. Now it appears that ICE deliberately steered El Paso police in the wrong direction to protect their murderous source. This behavior is reminiscent of the FBI's cover-ups of mafia informant murders and other crimes in the 1980s and 90s. Indeed, the official toleration and facilitation of crime is the core compromise at the heart of snitching, and suggests that insofar as ICE is making informants the centerpiece of its border strategy, its problems in this arena are only just beginning.

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October 21, 2009

Of Insider-Trading, Informants,and Wiretaps

"Wall Street Meets the 'Wire,'" is a post from earlier this week on White Collar Crime Prof Blog, discussing the criminal case against billionaire hedge-fund manager Raj Rajaratnam for insider-trading. Here's a link to the news story on Bloomberg. The post focuses on the unusually aggressive use of wiretaps in the investigation, and asks whether the government was authorized under the federal wiretap statute to do so given the availability of cooperating informants. As the post explains:

Title 18 U.S.C. § 2518(3)(c) provides that a court issuing a wiretap authorization order must determine whether normal investigative procedures have been tried and have failed or reasonably appear to be unlikely to succeed if tried or to be too dangerous. This "necessity requirement" obligates the government to set forth a full and complete statement of specific circumstances explaining why traditional investigative techniques were insufficient or the application must be denied. In determining the sufficiency of an affidavit, a reviewing court must ensure that the issuing court properly performed [its] function and did not 'serve merely as a rubber stamp for the police'. The government is not under an obligation to exhaust all alternative means of investigation in satisfying the necessity requirement but, neither should it be able to ignore avenues of investigation that appear both fruitful and cost-effective.
Given that the government had three co-conspirators, including one as early as January 2006, acting as informants and cooperating witnesses, and that these individuals had unfettered access to Rajaratnam and others involved in the alleged conspiracies, the question arises whether the government deliberately stalled this investigation and actively resisted utilizing normal investigative techniques, hoping to induce the court into believing that only a wiretap could succeed.

The post doesn't mention it, but the government need not even get court permission for electronic surveillance if it has so-called "third party consent," i.e. if the informant agrees to record the conversation. 18 U.S.C. § 2511(2)(c).

This story illustrates the intimate legal relationship between informants and other forms of surveillance. The law privileges informant use, forcing the government to justify its use of wiretaps if informants are available--note that the post refers to snitching as a "normal investigative technique." Moreover, the law permits the government to circumvent the courts entirely and avoid asking for permission to record conversations if it can find an informant who will agree to the surveillance. The usual explanation for this hierarchy is that electronic surveillance is one of the most intrusive forms of investigation and therefore should be a means of last resort. Wiretapping is of course supremely invasive, but this fact obscures the fact that informant use can be similarly intrusive, i.e. when the government threatens friends and colleagues with criminal charges to get them to report on and record people they know. For those who are interested, Chapter Two of the book discusses informant law in detail.


The insider-trading story also hints at important differences between white collar and street/drug crime investigative tactics involving snitching. The culture of informant use is very different in these two realms: white collar informants tend to be (although not always) well controlled, represented by counsel, and provide information about past crimes, whereas drug informants tend to be poorly controlled, unrepresented, and permitted to engage in new criminal activity in order to generate evidence. At the same time, the two arenas share important features. Here's an excerpt from Chapter Seven:
White collar informing shares important characteristics with its street counterpart. Both confer a vast amount of discretionary, unreviewable authority on law enforcement. Both exacerbate power inequalities among potential offenders, as well as between vulnerable offenders and the government. In both arenas, the decision to permit cooperation means that the government is tolerating and forgiving crime, and sometimes even creating an atmosphere in which crime may flourish. And both deprive courts, and thus the public, of significant amounts of power over and information about the operations of the executive.

As informant use becomes increasingly prevalent in white collar investigations, we should expect to see more of the problems of unreliability and continued criminality that have become familiar in the street crime arena. See previous post: Committing Crime While Working for the Government.

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October 16, 2009

More fallout from the Jack Abramoff investigation

The Washington Post reports today on the sentencing of Bush White House official David Safavian, former chief of staff at the General Services Administration. Safavian was convicted of lying to federal investigators about thousands of dollars worth of perks and benefits he received from corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff. I think it is useful to follow the ripples left by the Abramoff affair because he is the paradigmatic example of what is both great and problematic about snitching. The great version: a bad guy cuts a deal with the government that exposes even worse guys, or "bigger fish," and heightens public awareness of flaws in the system. This is the best argument for offering lenience to serious offenders--on balance it can create a greater public good, and indeed Abramoff's conviction and cooperation has led to numerous other convictions and stronger ethics rules. The problematic version: Abramoff received a four-year sentence for his massive and ongoing corruption, not to mention a lesser sentence on a totally unrelated fraud charge in Florida. Had Abramoff sold a tablespoon of crack cocaine he would have gotten more prison time. Moreover, his cooperation has resulted in convictions of just a few "big fish": Congressman Bob Ney, Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles, as well as today's Safavian. While there have been other related convictions, they have mostly been of aides, other lobbyists, or players less powerful and culpable than Abramoff himself. Were these convictions worth letting the poster-child for corrupt lobbying off so lightly? This is the perennial dilemma with snitches: it is very hard to know whether we are actually getting more security and justice by letting them off the hook, or whether we too easily forgive serious wrongdoing in the name of cooperation.

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October 01, 2009

Derrion Albert's death, "Stop Snitching," and people's reluctance to talk to police

Yesterday on CNN, Anderson Cooper reported on the terrible story of 16-year-old Derrion Albert who was beaten to death by four other teenagers in Chicago. The beating was captured on videotape--story here. Four people have been charged so far. Police Superintendant Jody Weis told Cooper that no one has come forward to identify three other potential perpetrators, even though numerous people witnessed the event. Weis stated, "We are literally getting killed by this code of silence, this no-snitching rule. We've worked hard to overcome it." Cooper responded as follows:

This is something we focused on a lot on this program over the years. I did a piece on 60 Minutes about it as well. This whole stop snitching effort, rappers are telling people don't be a snitch. And now the definition of a snitch is not just somebody who is involved in a crime and tries to rat out someone else they were involved with. Now there's this horrible definition of being a snitch is anybody who comes forward and talks about a crime they've seen. That's just the mentality that cannot be tolerated.

"Stop snitching" is an important phenomenon in urban criminal law enforcement; it is also deeper than comments like Cooper's suggest, which is why I devote an entire chapter of the book to it. In a nutshell, "stop snitching" is the legacy of three related trends: drug enforcement's heavy use of criminal snitches, increased gang violence against witnesses, and decades of mistrust between police and poor minority communities. While it is true that rappers often write songs that say "don't snitch," rap music should not be blamed for the fact that law-abiding residents of high-crime inner city neighborhoods are often too afraid of retaliation and/or too wary of police to report crimes. Here is an excerpt from the book:
The "stop snitching" phenomenon turns out to be complex, deep-seated, and long-standing. It did not begin with a DVD or a rap song, nor will it end when ["stop snitching"] t-shirts go out of style. It is simultaneously a criminal code of the street, a reflection of widespread communal distrust of police, as well as, more recently, a tool of intimidation against civilian witnesses. While the phenomenon was born in the penal system, it has spread beyond its criminal roots, a product of the multifaceted challenges of urban crime, gang violence, race, drugs, and policing through criminal informants.

To explain "stop snitching" is not to condone it--the world would be a better place if Chicago residents had the kind of relationship with police that would promote cooperation and information-sharing. But it is also important to give Chicagoans more credit--like so many people in cities such as Baltimore or Newark or Los Angeles, their reluctance to call police often stems from very real personal as well as historical experiences.

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September 03, 2009

New Yorker Article--Of Experts and Snitches

In this extensive New Yorker article, reporter David Grann tells the story of how Texas prosecuted and executed Cameron Todd Willingham for the alleged arson murder of his three children. Willingham always insisted on his innocence, and recent forensic evidence indicates that the fire was in fact an accident. A Texas government commission is reviewing the case--as Grann puts it, if the commission concludes that Willingham did not set the fire, "Texas could become the first state to acknowledge officially that, since the advent of the modern judicial system, it had carried out the 'execution of a legally and factually innocent person.'"

There were two controversial kinds of evidence used at Willingham's trial. The first and most important was the state expert's opinion that the fire was intentionally set. The second was the testimony of Johnny Webb, a jailhouse snitch with drug and mental health problems, who was hoping to "get time cut" off his robbery and forgery charges and who testified that Willingham confessed to him. Eight years after the trial, in 2000, Webb recanted his testimony, but within months he recanted again. Here are a few excerpts from the story describing Webb.

Not long after Willingham's arrest, authorities received a message from a prison inmate named Johnny Webb, who was in the same jail as Willingham. Webb alleged that Willingham had confessed to him . . .During Willingham's trial, another inmate planned to testify that he had overheard Webb saying to another prisoner that he was hoping to "get time cut," but the testimony was ruled inadmissible, because it was hearsay. . . . [Years later, in 2009, reporter David Grann interviewed Webb.] After [Grann] pressed him, [Webb] said, "It's very possible I misunderstood what he [Willingham] said." Since the trial, Webb has been given an additional diagnosis, bipolar disorder. "Being locked up in that little cell makes you kind of crazy," he said. "My memory is in bits and pieces. I was on a lot of medication at the time. Everyone knew that." He paused, then said, "The statute of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn't it?"

This is a good example of how jailhouse informant testimony can not only create bad cases but bolster weak ones. Because of the general understanding in the criminal system that informants get a break, informants may reach out to the government to offer testimony, making bad cases look better. In other words, the culture of snitching generates evidentiary "filler," even if the government is not actively looking for any.


The New Yorker story is centrally about the role of bad forensic expertise, and it highlights similarities between experts and informants. Both are paid and controlled by one side, both have a stake in the outcome, and both offer testimony that is difficult to cross examine or rebut. Professor George Harris wrote an article on these similiarities entitled "Testimony for Sale: The Law and Ethics of Snitches and Experts," in Pepperdine Law Review, in which he argues that experts and snitches alike should be subject to more rigorous controls and adversarial testing. In particular, he offers a proposal, on which I expand in my book, to create "defense informants," i.e. informants who could testify for defendants and receive the same kind of benefits that informants can now receive only by testifying for the prosecution.

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August 24, 2009

No Special Treatment for Madoff Cooperator

The Wall Street Journal Law blog posts here that U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan has refused to let cooperator Frank DiPascali out on bail, even though DiPascali has pled guilty and is helping the government unravel the Madoff scheme. The reason this is newsworthy is that everyone expects courts to treat cooperators well, even when they've committed major crimes (DiPascali's crimes include helping Madoff, lying under oath to SEC investigators, and forging documents--he faces 125 years in prison). In other words, Judge Sullivan is the exception that illustrates the rule. It is more typical for prosecutors and courts to quietly accommodate cooperators--keeping them out on bail, dropping charges, and even helping them with criminal cases in other jurisdictions. In my view, and as I argue in my book, these commonplace accommodations and the culture of cooperation more generally have skewed the criminal system's approach to culpability. Offenders are evaluated as much for their usefulness as their wrongdoing, and even the most heinous crimes have become opportunities for negotiation. For a haunting example, read this story in the Washington Times entitled Drug Dealer Avoids Jail in Daughter's Killing, about a drug informant who avoided punishment for the death of his daughter who died of, among other things, a fractured skull and severe malnurishment.

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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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August 18, 2009

Committing Crime While Working for the Government

TalkLeft picked up on this story about a Secret Service informant who, while assisting the government, launched one of the largest identity theft operations in U.S. history. Back in 2003, Albert Gonzalez avoided indictment for identity fraud by becoming a snitch; his cooperation resulted in the dismantling of a significant identity theft ring of which he appeared to be the ringleader. He kept on with his criminal activities, however, apparently even using his government connections to warn other hackers.

This is simply one of the biggest problems with informant use: the fact that offenders can use active cooperation not only to avoid punishment but to continue offending. It is a problem inherent in snitching: the most useful informants are typically the most active criminals, so the government has to tolerate some amount of criminality in exchange for information about and access to criminal activities. The scale of the phenomenon ranges: from the small (addicts who stay on the street by providing information to police) to the large (drug dealers who remain in operation by informing on colleagues and competitors) to the mind-boggling (terrorists who provide information to the U.S. government while participating in new terrorist activities). In my book I write extensively about the harm that this practice can cause in high-crime urban communities in particular. When law enforcement tolerates crimes committed by cooperating offenders, whether it is drug use, property crimes, or violence, the neighborhoods in which those offenders live have to put up with it.

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