Resources

  • SNITCHING: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice
  • U.S. Attorney General's Guidelines on the FBI's Use of Confidential Human Sources
  • Sarah Stillman, The Throwaways, The New Yorker (2012) (article on the use of juvenile informants)

Recent Blog Posts

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Nebraska passes jailhouse informant reform

The new law, signed in April, requires stronger disclosures, tracking of jailhouse informants, and notifications to victims if an informant who harmed them receives leniency.  The law is here, and the Innocence Project wrote about the problem here.  Prior post here.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Professor Robert Bloom on jailhouse informant expert testimony

Professor Robert Bloom is an expert on informants who has testified in numerous cases.  He has now authored this article,What Jurors Should Know about Informants: The Need for Expert Testimony, Mich. St. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2019).  Here is the abstract:  

  With the advent of DNA exonerations, the data would indicate that many individuals have been wrongly convicted. In looking at the causes of the exonerations, nearly 20% have involved testimony by accomplices and jailhouse informants. The questionable credibility of these individuals has long been recognized by courts and legislatures. Reforms in this area include, enhanced jury instructions, pre-trial credibility hearings, and corroboration before the testimony can be introduced.  

  This article argues the efficacy of expert testimony to further assist jurors in measuring the credibility of these witnesses. Although the use of experts has largely been disfavored by courts, there has been a gradual movement to use experts for eyewitness identifications, the major cause of exonerations. The article proposes a similar movement for informant testimony.

Professor Bloom is also the author of the book Ratting: The Use and Abuse of Informants in the American Justice System (2002).

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Illinois enacts nation's strongest law on jailhouse informant testimony

Last week, the Illinois legislature overrode the governor’s veto of Senate Bill 1830, which will enact the strongest law in the nation to prevent wrongful convictions based on false jailhouse informant testimony. The Illinois Innocence Project and the national Innocence Project supported the law, which was authored by Senator Michael Hastings (D-Tinley Park) and Rep. Art Turner (D-Chicago). Under Senate Bill 1830, Illinois will be the first state in the country to require judges to hold pre-trial reliability hearings before jailhouse informant witness testimony is admissible in murder, sexual assault and arson cases. In addition, the law requires prosecutors to disclose key evidence regarding jailhouse informant witnesses to the defense, including benefits provided in exchange for testimony, their complete criminal history, and their previous jailhouse informant activities. Illinois enacted these protections for capital cases in 2003; however, the law became moot when the death penalty was abolished in 2011.

Read more about the new law here.

posted by Michelle Feldman








Sunday, November 25, 2018

Georgia prison official loses his job for objecting to informant program

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Georgia prison captain Sherman Maine was fired when he objected to a secret, off-the-books informant program being run in high security prisons in which informants were given cell phones.  From the story:

"Maine said the secrecy of the program makes it impossible to know if the reward is worth the risk. 'Now every stabbing becomes suspect,' said Maine, 45. 'We won’t know who’s an informant or not. They’re going to get someone killed, if they haven’t already.' . . .  Maine said [the program] reveals a lack of respect for human life while exposing the state to great liability. 'They de-value human life to the point that it’s ridiculous,' he said. 'The state kept referring to (informants) as tools. They’re not tools, they’re people, and we have an obligation to protect them.'”

Maine is suing the Department of Corrections for violations of the Georgia Whistleblower Act.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Multimillion-dollar drug bounties for informants

Bloomberg recently explored the State Department's Narcotics Reward Program which offers bounties for information on high-ranking drug traffickers: America’s Multimillion-Dollar Bounty Program Just for Drug Lords.   As always, the program accepts the risk of rewarding and protecting serious, violent criminals in exchange for information about other potentially more serious, violent criminals.  As the article notes, "[c]ritics of the government’s rewards programs warn that huge cash bounties increase cartel violence and encourage corruption among U.S. law enforcement personnel. But the program’s success is hard to dismiss, its proponents contend."  Other agencies, including the IRS and the SEC, offer large bounties to informants as well.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The pressure to become an ICE informant

The Intercept published this extensive story on the ICE informant program, how individual migrants can be coerced into becoming informants, and how the practice intersects with various aspects of the immigration apparatus: Play to Stay: Undocumented Immigrant Faces a Choice: Become an Informant for ICE or Be Deported.  The piece documents both the relatively robust regulatory structure that ICE uses to manage informants, and how it can go wrong.  From the article:

   "Working with confidential informants is a controlled process with oversight from [Homeland Security Investigations] HSI management, [Agent] Robinette said. Informants are registered and receive identification numbers. Background checks are conducted. Supervisors must approve the agreements. Indeed, ICE dedicates an entire handbook solely to informants, though its contents have not been made public. A separate HSI handbook on asset forfeiture, leaked to The Intercept and also published by the independent media organization Unicorn Riot, says that ICE should “identify, cultivate, and retain assistance” from so-called confidential informants “who are intimately involved with targeted criminal organizations.” According to the handbook, employing an informant should be a last resort, and the decision to do so should be made only after weighing the informant’s reliability against other factors. Every dollar paid to informants should be carefully considered and documented.

At the same time, ICE informant practices suffer from many of the ills that characterize informant use more generally and in less regulated environments. As the article notes, "several news stories have highlighted the pitfalls of ICE-informant relationships. Agents have fostered improper liaisons with informants. In one case, ICE knew an informant participated in killings yet continued working with him anyway (the agent was later fired). ICE, along with the FBI, uses informants and then works to deport them. ICE defenders like Robinette paint these as isolated incidents, and, of course, most ICE informants don’t make the news."

For similar stories and additional resources see these prior posts.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Illinois Governor Makes Disappointing Move on Jailhouse Informant Law

Last month, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed Senate Bill 1830, a protection against wrongful convictions based on unreliable jailhouse informant testimony, despite the bill passing the legislature with bipartisan support. There will likely be an opportunity for the legislature to override the veto in November.

In Illinois, jailhouse informants have played a role in 17 wrongful convictions that have cost taxpayers $88.4 million in civil lawsuit payments and state compensation. SB 1830 would prevent wrongful convictions by requiring pre-trial reliability hearings and disclosure of specific impeachment evidence to the defense before jailhouse informant testimony is admissible in homicide, sexual, assault and arson cases. These safeguards were already implemented for capitol cases by a 2003 law, which became moot when the death penalty was abolished in Illinois in 2011.

Scott Reader, a columnist at the Journal Standard, questions the governor's veto, particularly his explanation that jailhouse informant protections already exist for death penalty cases when Illinois hasn't had a death penalty for seven years.

The legislature is anticipated to return and take up SB 1830 for a veto override in the fall. 

posted by Michelle Feldman