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Friday, October 13, 2017

Recordings of FBI informant recruiting tactics

The Intercept has published a story of a man who documented and recorded nearly two years of efforts by the FBI to pressure him into becoming an informant. Story and recordings here: Recordings Capture Brutal FBI Tactics to Recruit a Potential Informant.  The story is by Trevor Aaronson, author of "The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism."

Friday, September 29, 2017

States take a fresh look at snitching

Here's an op-ed I wrote for The Crime Report chronicling the latest wave of state legislative reform.  Some highlights:

-       Texas passed comprehensive reform requiring prosecutors to track and disclose their informants’ criminal history, past testimony, and benefits.  The New York Times called it “the most comprehensive effort yet to rein in the dangers of transactional snitching.” 

-       Andrew’s Law in North Dakota prohibits campus police from using students as informants.  State police may only use informants with a written agreement.  Of particular note, Andrew’s Law bans the use of child informants under the age of 16, one of very few states to do so.

-       Illinois came very close to re-instituting reliability hearings.  The state previously required them in capital cases: now that Illinois no longer has the death penalty this bill will require pretrial hearings for all jailhouse informants.

-       Montana’s Senate Bill 249 introduced comprehensive legislation that would require, among other things, electronic recording of informant statements, greater prosecutorial disclosure, pretrial reliability hearings, and cautionary jury instructions.

-       Washington recently considered two bills. One from 2016 would have required pretrial reliability hearings in all informant cases.  The other would have required enhanced prosecutorial disclosure.  Barry Scheck, founder and director of the Innocence Project, wrote that the Washington legislation was a “key advance” and that it represented an opportunity to “ensure that the strongest protections are in place for the innocent.”

Friday, September 22, 2017

Insight into FBI informant criminal activity

The FBI reports to the Department of Justice the total "Otherwise Illegal Activity" (OIA) that it authorizes its informants to engage in. In its most recent report due to an error, some of that data was missing--the total was down from 5,261 crimes to 381. The FBI explains that “When the FBI submitted 2016 data to the Justice Department regarding the Confidential Human Source Program one tier of data accidentally was not submitted." Presumably the FBI omitted Tier 2 crimes--the less serious tier. Here's the story which was featured on the Marshall Project's Opening Statement: FBI Severely Underreported How Many Times It Authorized Informants to Break the Law [Updated]

The 2017 Confidential Informant Accountability Act would expand the FBI's reporting requirement. The FBI (and all other federal investigative agencies) would have to report to Congress, not just DOJ. And it would have to report not only the crimes it authorized its informants to commit, but all the serious crimes that it has reason to believe that its informants committed while working for the agency.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Texas passes strong new informant disclosure law

At the recommendation of the Timothy Cole Commission, Texas has passed strong new legislation requiring the government to collect a range of data on its jailhouse informants, including prior testimony and benefits, and to turn that data over to the defense.  The bill is here.

And here is the New York Times Editorial Board's glowing review of the new law, Texas Cracks Down on the Market for Jailhouse Snitches, calling it "the most comprehensive effort yet to rein in the dangers of transactional snitching." The Times also notes, however, that prosecutors are supposed to turn over such evidence anyway and that further reforms are called for, such as reliability hearings and barring informants in capital cases.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Prosecutor in Willingham case tried for ethics violation, and acquitted

Originally posted May 3:  In a rare display of potential discipline, the prosecutor who misused a jailhouse informant against Cameron Todd Willingham--John Jackson--is on trial for ethics violations.  "Specifically, the state’s lawyers contend that Jackson made a deal with a jailhouse snitch who agreed to testify against Willingham and then hid that deal from Willingham’s defense attorneys — a clear violation of both law and ethics. They say that Jackson took extraordinary measures over the next two decades to conceal his deceitful actions." Here is the story from The Intercept.

Update May 13: The jury acquitted prosecutor John Jackson.  From The Marshall Project: "By an 11-to-1 vote, a Navarro County jury rejected claims by the State Bar of Texas that Jackson made false statements, concealed evidence favorable to Willingham’s defense and obstructed justice."

Barry Scheck, Innocence Project Founder, on informant reform

Washington State is considering legislation that would strengthen the government's obligation to disclose information about its criminal informants.   Barry Scheck, Founder of the Innocence Project, writes about how important this legislation is in Justice can be tainted by the use of informants' testimony.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

North Dakota passes cutting edge legislation

In the wake of the death of college student Andrew Sadek, North Dakota has passed Andrew's Law, an important piece of legislation that sets a new standard in informant reform.  Some of the most heartening aspects of the bill are as follows:

  • It bans the use of informants who are 15 years old or younger. Only California and New Jersey currently ban the use of juvenile informants at the state level, and their cutoff is 12 years old.  
  • College police may not use college students as informants.
  • Police officers must be trained before they use informants.
  • All informant agreements must be in writing. The agreement must include, among other things, an explanation of what the informant is expected to do and what benefit they can expect to receive.  This is particularly important since young and vulnerable informants may not know what is expected of them, and law enforcement may continue to use them without clear boundaries or limits.
  • The agreement must tell the informant of their right to consult with counsel.
  • The agreement must warn the informant that the work may be dangerous.
  • The bill creates procedures for complaints, and an investigative process when an informant is killed.
This legislation is the culmination of a decade-long public debate over vulnerable informants that has been brewing since 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman was killed in Florida in 2008.  Since then, we have learned about the rampant, unregulated use of young informants, and how some campus police pressure college students into risking their education and even their lives.  North Dakota's new law is one of the best responses so far.  More details from the Huffington Post here.