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

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


Thursday, August 23, 2018

President Trump gets snitching backwards

President Trump has attacked "flipping" and cooperation, saying that "it should almost be illegal," according to the New York Times.  Reacting to his lawyer Michael Cohen's plea deal, Trump says “I know all about flipping. For 30, 40 years I have been watching flippers. . . . I have seen it many times. I have had many friends involved in this stuff.”

The irony is that Trump is attacking snitching for its greatest strength:  it enables law enforcement to investigate and prosecute the wealthy, the powerful, and the politically insulated.  Think of the Enron prosecution, or the dismantling of the mafia, neither of which could have happened without cooperation deals.  Also ironically, Trump is criticizing informant use in its least problematic incarnation. When Trump's "many friends" become defendants and informants, they will be well represented and informed about their rights and options, while their cooperation deals will be recorded, vetted, and publicly scrutinized.  Most informants, and most defendants faced with snitch testimony, will get none of these protections.  It is precisely here in the white collar and high profile political context that cooperation is best regulated, most accountable and transparent, and thus least problematic.

To be sure, there are many reasons to agree that snitching "should almost be illegal."  It leads to wrongful convictions; it tolerates the crimes committed by informants; it coerces the most vulnerable and rewards the most culpable.  It promotes government secrecy, rule breaking, and sometimes corruption.  But its potential to hold powerful people accountable is its best feature.


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Prisoners have a First Amendment right not to snitch

The Second Circuit has decided an extraordinarily important case, Burns v. Martuscello, in which the court held that prison officials violated an inmate's First Amendment rights when they tried to coerce him into being an informant.  Writing that "compelled speech presents a unique affront to personal dignity," the court decided that prison officials acted unconstitutionally when they placed Burns in solitary confinement in retaliation for his refusal to snitch.

The court noted that snitching in prison can be especially dangerous, thus heightening prisoners' First Amendment interest in refraining from speech.  The court also reasoned that forcing prisoners to snitch is analogous to forcing a person on the street to talk to the police--something the Fourth Amendment prohibits.  Finally, and importantly, the court rejected the government's claim that forcing inmates to snitch is necessary to maintain safe prison conditions. "Coercing inmates to serve as informants," wrote the court, "is, at best, an exaggerated response to prison concerns."

This case has broad potential implications. Prisoners are often required to debrief or inform in order to avoid discipline or harsher conditions of confinement.  Prisoners, moreover, typically have reduced constitutional rights as compared to non-prisoners.  If inmates cannot be pressured to snitch, many other people including suspects, arrestees, criminal defendants, and immigrants, all of whom are often pressured to inform, may have new constitutional protections.

The Marshall Project covers the case here: Is There a Right Not to Snitch?