July 24, 2014

Florida Supreme Court regulates criminal informant testimony

In 2012, the Florida Innocence Commission made a series of reform recommendations in recognition of the "dangers of false informant and jailhouse snitch testimony." The Florida Supreme Court has now amended the rules of evidence to reflect those recommendations. See In re: Amendments to Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure 3.220. The Miami Herald reported the story here: Florida's high court puts brakes on snitches' testimony.

The Florida Supreme Court . . . finally has changed the rules of evidence. Beginning this month, prosecutors now are required to disclose both a summary of the jailhouse informant's criminal history and just what kind of deal a snitch will be getting in return for testimony. And now, jurors will hear about prior cases that relied on testimony from that particular informant. The justices ordered new restrictions on the much abused informant testimony, because snitches, the court noted, "constitute the basis for many wrongful convictions." It was an unanimous decision. It was about time.

The new rules require greater disclosure of an informant's criminal background, prior history of providing information to the government, and all their deals. Of particular importance, the Florida court included all informants who allege that they have evidence about defendant statements, not merely "jailhouse snitches," i.e., those who happen to be in jail at the time. The new rule also requires disclosure of benefits that the informant "expects to receive" for his testimony, and it defines benefits broadly as "anything...[including any] personal advantage, vindication, or other benefit that the prosecution, or any person acting on behalf of the prosecution, has knowingly made or may make in the future." This is an important counter to the fact that informants know that they are likely to be rewarded for providing information even if no one explicitly promises them anything up front. Thanks to EvidenceProfBlog for calling attention to this important development.

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August 23, 2013

Congressman Lynch Urges Holder to Strengthen Informant Guidelines

Congressman Stephen Lynch (D-MA), author of the 2013 Confidential Informant Accountability Act, has written a formal letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking that the FBI be required to report serious informant crimes to Congress. From the press release:

"The FBI routinely authorizes its confidential informants to engage in so-called 'otherwise illegal activity' without full disclosure to Congress as to the nature and extent of these crimes," said Congressman Lynch. "By revising the current guidelines governing the use of FBI confidential informants to require the FBI to report to Congress on the specific crimes committed by its human sources, the Attorney General would take a significant step towards ensuring greater accountability, transparency, and safety regarding the administration of Department of Justice confidential informant programs."

Lynch, a senior member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has continually supported enhanced accountability and transparency in the use of government confidential informants. In the 113th Congress, he has introduced H.R. 265, the Confidential Informant Accountability Act of 2013, legislation that would require all federal law enforcement agencies to report to Congress all serious crimes committed by their confidential human sources. In addition, Lynch has consistently called for the Oversight Committee to conduct hearings regarding the use of confidential informants by the Department of Justice and specifically, the FBI. In the 112th Congress, Lynch, with the support of the Oversight Committee and Senator Charles E. Grassley, led a more than yearlong investigation to examine the relationship between the FBI Boston Division and an individual known as Mark Rossetti. Importantly, the investigation facilitated an internal review of the FBI's Rossetti case files by an FBI Inspection team deployed to Boston in 2011 and confirmation of Rossetti's previous status as a longtime FBI confidential informant.

Lynch's letter to Holder can be found here.

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February 05, 2013

Death of a young Washington informant inspires new legislation

Jeremy McLean was a young informant who was threatened and eventually killed by a heroin trafficker. Jeremy's story--and his parents' lawsuit against the police-- was featured in the widely-read 2012 New Yorker article on the risky use of young informants. The Daily News subsequently ran this in-depth four-part series detailing the specifics of how Jeremy came to be an informant after he developed an addiction to pain medication, the threats against his life, and the police's inaction that contributed to his death: Death of an Informant, Part I.

In January, Washington State Senator Adam Kline introduced legislation, SB 5373, that would regulate the use of drug informants like Jeremy. The bill would ban the use of informants who are 16 years old and under, require police to tell informants about their obligations and potential rewards in writing, and establish new accountability mechanisms for keeping track of informant use. It's an important bill, particularly the restriction on using juvenile informants which few states currently have.

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November 28, 2012

New informant legislation introduced in Texas

A Texas legislator has just introduced a new bill, H.B. 189, that would bar the use of compensated criminal informants in capital cases. H.B. 189 would make informant and accomplice testimony inadmissible if "the testimony is given in exchange for a grant or promise by the attorney representing the state or by another of immunity from prosecution, reduction of sentence, or any other form of leniency or special treatment." In effect, the bill embodies the sensible idea that paying criminals for their testimony is simply too unreliable to be used in death penalty cases. The Texas Tribune ran this story: Bill Would Restrict Informant Testimony in Death Cases. The bill would also bar the use of alleged confessions made to jailhouse snitches unless the confessions are corroborated by electronic recordings. In many ways Texas has been on the forefront of this issue--the state already has drug and jailhouse snitch corroboration requirements. See this post: Texas requires corroboration for informant witnesses.

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May 14, 2012

Law review article on Rachel's Law

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

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

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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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October 21, 2011

Congressman Lynch introduces informant legislation

In the wake of new revelations about FBI informant crimes, U.S. Representative Stephen F. Lynch (D-MA) has introduced important new legislation that would require federal investigative agencies to report their informants' serious crimes to Congress. H.R. 3228, The Confidential Informant Accountability Act, would require the FBI, the DEA, Secret Service, ICE and ATF to report every six months to Congress all "serious crimes" committed by their informants, whether or not those crimes were authorized. "Serious crime" is defined as any serious violent felony, any serious drug crime, or any crime of racketeering, bribery, child pornography, obstruction of justice, or perjury. The bill prohibits the disclosure of informant names, control numbers, or any other personal information that might permit them to be identified. Under the U.S. Attorney General's Guidelines, the FBI is already required to disclose its informants' crimes to federal prosecutors.

The bill would also help the families of two men who were killed in connection with FBI informant Whitey Bulger to recover damages from the FBI. For more background, see these stories in the Boston Globe: Bill would aid kin of two slain men, and Pants on Fire. Full disclosure: I provided information to Congressman Lynch's office in support of this bill and I am strongly in favor of the effort.

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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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California passes jailhouse informant corroboration law

Governor Brown just signed important new legislation requiring corroboration before a jailhouse informant can testify. SF Chronicle story here: Law requires corroboration of cellmate's testimony. California joins Texas, Illinois, Massachusetts, Idaho, and several other states that require safeguards to counteract the well-documented unreliability of jailhouse snitch testimony. Here is part of the bill:

A jury or judge may not convict a defendant, find a special circumstance true, or use a fact in aggravation based on the uncorroborated testimony of an in-custody informant.

An "in custody informant" is defined as: "a person, other than a codefendant, percipient witness, accomplice, or coconspirator, whose testimony is based on statements allegedly made by the defendant while both the defendant and the informant were held in within a city or county jail, state penal institution, or correctional institution." Full disclosure: I testified in support of this legislation.

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May 19, 2011

NYU Law School report criticizes use of domestic terrorism informants

NYU Law School's Center for Human Rights and Global Justice has just released this report: Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the "Homegrown Threat" in the United States. The report examines three recent high profile domestic terrorism cases, in all of which informants played a central role, and argues that the use of compensated informants is creating the perception of a threat in U.S. Muslim communities where none may have existed before. From the executive summary:

Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has targeted Muslims in the United States by sending paid, untrained informants into mosques and Muslim communities. This practice has led to the prosecution of more than 200 individuals in terrorism-related cases. The government has touted these cases as successes in the so-called war against terrorism. However, in recent years, former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, local lawmakers, the media, the public, and community-based groups have begun questioning the legitimacy and efficacy of this practice, alleging that--in many instances--this type of policing, and the resulting prosecutions, constitute entrapment.

In the cases this Report examines, the government's informants held themselves out as Muslims and looked in particular to incite other Muslims to commit acts of violence. The government's informants introduced and aggressively pushed ideas about violent jihad and, moreover, actually encouraged the defendants to believe it was their duty to take action against the United States. In two of the three cases, the government relied on the defendants' vulnerabilities--poverty and youth, for example--in its inducement methods. In all three cases, the government selected or encouraged the proposed locations that the defendants would later be accused of argeting. In all three cases, the government also provided the defendants with, or encouraged the defendants to acquire, material evidence, such as weaponry or violent videos, which would later be used to convict them.


The report argues that the ways that the U.S. government uses informants to target Muslims threatens such basic legal principles as the right to a fair trial, the right to non-discrimination, and the rights to freedom of religion and expression. The report concludes with numerous policy recommendations.

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New report on informants in Mississippi's criminal justice system

Justice Strategies and the ACLU have issued a highly critical report entitled: Numbers Game: The Vicious Cycle of Incarceration in Mississippi's Criminal Justice System. The report identifies three main problems in Mississippi: harsh sentencing policies, the misuse of multi-jurisdictional drug task forces, and the heavy recruitment and use of drug informants. The informant section analyzes numerous issues, including the widespread use of snitches in low income African American communities throughout Mississippi, and the social harm that this causes. For example:

A similar pattern and practice of using neighbors and friends as confidential informants is occurring in Flora, Mississippi, a tiny town of some 1,500 residents in Madison County--an area where complaints of racial profiling are common. Local police frequently threaten low-level drug users and sellers, coercing them to "snitch" on their friends.

Josephine, is a grandmother and lifelong Flora resident. According to her, Flora has never experienced a significant drug problem.... Josephine maintains that there are at least three known informants among the young people in Flora, and that many residents are frustrated with the local police because they are forcing young people to turn each other in. With considerable nostalgia, she recalls that people in Flora used to be very neighborly; they would talk about their families, joys and troubles, but now, "everybody don't fool with each other anymore. People keeping to themselves and not inviting each other in their homes." She says that people are afraid to go out at night. "Most young guys are scared to walk the streets at night because the cops mess with them." When her 20-year-old nephew does go out at night, she fears for his safety, not because of other Flora residents, but because of law enforcement agents: "Cops know how to scare you into snitching."

From another Mississippi resident:

Some community residents view the use of CIs as not only tolerating criminal activity, but also enabling it--greatly diminishing the legitimacy of policing in their eyes. Another Mississippi mother, Sandra, says that her son's informer was allowed to continue his own criminal enterprise while turning in her son:

"They use people [who] already [have] a felony conviction and should be in prison, and give them 'paper time.' The week before they arrested my son, they search and arrest this guy. He had weed, crack and money on him. They gave it back to him and let him go on 'paper time' for snitching on my son."

The report concludes by proposing numerous reforms, including the establishment of an informant registry to keep track of people who are trying to work off their own criminal charges, a requirement that law enforcement report crimes committed by their informants, and a ban on using juvenile snitches.

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January 01, 2011

Washington State introduces exciting new legislation

Senator Bob McCaslin (R-Spokane Valley) has introduced Senate Bill 5004 which would vastly improve the way Washington creates and uses criminal informants: An Act Relating to disclosure and regulation of criminal informant evidence and testimony. The effort was triggered by this case -- More on the Spokane convictions --in which three young men were convicted based on the testimony of a criminal informant. Even after an acccomplice recanted, saying that the three were set up, the boys still were denied a new trial. The family of one of the three, Paul Statler, has been vigorously advocating for legislative change -- hence SB 5004. Inlander Magazine story here: Reasonable Doubt. Full disclosure: I provided Sen. McCaslin's office with information in support of this bill, and I am strongly in favor of the effort.

This bill is an excellent example of the kinds of legislative change that we can expect more of, as legislatures and the public learn more about the risks of informant use. It is also a moving example of how families of young defendants are influencing the debate over informant policy -- see Florida's Rachel's Law offers some protection to informants, and Recruiting new informants. This is such an important phenomenon that Snitching.org has created a new subject matter area devoted to it: Families & Youth. More to come.

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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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October 04, 2010

Texas requires corroboration for informant witnesses

Perhaps as a result of these sorts of debacles, Infamous fake drug scandal in Dallas, Of Experts and Snitches, Texas has passed some good corroboration legislation restricting the use of drug informants and jailhouse snitches. Last year, it passed this law requiring corroboration for jailhouse snitches:

A defendant may not be convicted of an offense on the testimony of a person to whom the defendant made a statement against the defendant's interest during a time when the person was imprisoned or confined in the same correctional facility as the defendant unless the testimony is corroborated by other evidence tending to connect the defendant with the offense committed. Tex. Code. Crim. Pro. art. 38-075

Article 38-141 similarly requires corroboration before a drug informant can testify. These are steps in the right direction, although they are only partial solutions to the lying snitch problem. The key to informant unreliability is not whether the informant is involved in drugs or in jail, but whether he expects a benefit and therefore has a motivation to lie. Nebraska takes the right approach in this regard by defining "informant" to include "any criminal suspect, whether or not he is detained or incarcerated, who received a deal, promise, inducement or benefit." Neb. Rev. Stat. 29-1929. In defining informant broadly, the Nebraska legislature reasoned that "there is a compelling state interest in providing safeguards against the admission of testimony the reliability of which may be or has been compromised through improper inducements."

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June 22, 2010

Important pending legislation in New York

Legislation is pending before the New York Senate that would reduce the occurences of wrongful conviction. Recommended by the New York State Bar Association Task Force on Wrongful Conviction, the six bills address, among other things, criminal informants, eye witness testimony, recording interrogations, and improved discovery. Here are links to the legislation and the NYSB press release.

The proposed informant legislation would accomplish a number of important things. First, it would require corroboration before any criminal informant testimony could be used in court. An informant is defined as any person "who is not an accomplice and who agrees to provide testimony or evidence on an understanding that he or she will receive a favorable disposition or resolution of pending or possible criminal charges, financial benefit not associated with usual witness appearance, or other substantial benefit for himself or another person." This is an appropriate definition--it captures all informants who have an incentive to lie in order to gain a benefit, while excluding regular civilian witnesses, whistleblowers, and victims. The bill would also improve the discovery of information about informants, preserve informant anonymity if there are safety or other good reasons, and require a special instruction reminding jurors that the informant witness is receiving a benefit and that therefore his testimony should be viewed with caution. The legislation is covered today in an AP story about Steve Barnes who spent 20 years in prison based on the fabricated testimony of a criminal informant--story available here: Steve Barnes lost 20 years to lying jailhouse snitch: proposed law would keep liars from court.

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February 03, 2010

Reform efforts in Texas and elsewhere

It is becoming increasingly common to see state commissions devoted to reducing wrongful convictions. These commissions often focus on three key sources of error: mistaken eyewitness testimony, false confessions, and snitches, although there are many additional subjects as well. For example, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice proposed several legislative reforms in this vein--the jailhouse informant corroboration reforms were passed twice by the California legislature but vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. Wisconsin recently established the Wisconsin Criminal Justice Study Commission. In 2002, North Carolina created a special commission to review post-conviction innocence claims.

In this same vein, Texas has established the Tim Cole Advisory Panel to reduce wrongful convictions in the state, and one of its missions is to examine the use of informants. Here's a recent news story about the Commission's visit to Tarrant County, Texas, in which the district attorney maintains a much-praised open-file policy. Here's an excerpt from GritsforBreakfast coverage of the panel's first meeting: Good vibes at Tim Cole Advisory Panel on false convictions.

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January 14, 2010

New developments in federal witness intimidation legislation

The Philadelphia Inquirer's witness intimidation series (previous post here) triggered a congressional hearing. You can read the testimonies here, including criticism of the series for exaggerating the extent of the problem. See testimony of Michael Coard. Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) subsequently called for a law that would make witness intimidation a federal offense; witness intimidation is already a state crime. Story here. In a similar development, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) introduced the Witness Security and Protection Grant Program Act of 2009, to provide assistance to state and local witness protection programs. Press release here. More indications that the law of informant use will look very different a few years from now.

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September 17, 2009

Florida's "Rachel's Law" offers some protection to informants

While using criminal informants can produce bad evidence and even sometimes more crime, the snitching phenomenon is problematic in other, more complex ways. Criminal snitches themselves are often vulnerable people--they may be young, undereducated, or suffering from substance abuse or mental disabilities. Indeed, this is true more generally for the majority of people in the criminal system. When police pressure such suspects to cooperate, many people feel as if they have no choice, even if cooperating is not in their best interests. Last year, 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman became an informant in Tallahassee, Florida, trying to avoid jailtime for her possession of a small amount of drugs. Police sent her on a sting operation during which she was killed. Her death triggered an outcry and resulted in ground breaking legislation to regularize the process by which police turn people into informants. My op-ed on the new law is published here in the Daily Journal, and it describes some of the law's features:

[It] creates new, basic mechanisms to protect informants and to increase police accountability. For example, Rachel's Law requires law enforcement agencies to establish policies and procedures, including recordkeeping rules, to guide police when they turn a suspect into an informant - essential regulations that most United States police departments lack. The law also requires police to tell suspects that police cannot make promises about what charges will be filed or dropped in exchange for cooperation - only a prosecutor can do that. Police must also consider an informant's suitability - including their age, maturity, and risk of physical harm - before entering into an agreement. This last requirement is a nod to the fact that many experts concluded that Rachel Hoffman was unsuited to the dangerous task that police assigned her.

The bottom line is that being an informant can be a very dangerous thing. Not only may the undercover work itself pose risks, but snitching can subject people to retribution and violence from all sort of sources. More on this in later posts.

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September 07, 2009

Afghan airstrike triggered by single informant

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the NATO airstrike that killed numerous Afghan civilians was based on intelligence received from a single informant, in violation of command policy. According to the Post:

The decision to bomb the tankers based largely on a single human intelligence source appears to violate the spirit of a tactical directive aimed at reducing civilian casualties that was recently issued by U.S. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new commander of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. The directive states that NATO forces cannot bomb residential buildings based on a sole source of information.

The civilian equivalent to the McChrystal directive is the corroboration requirement, which comes in a variety of forms. A dozen or so states have an accomplice corroboration requirement stating that no defendant can be convicted based solely on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice. Texas has a relatively new and important informant corroboration requirement which prohibits the conviction of any drug defendant based solely on the testimony of a single informant. Texas promulgated its rule after the 1999 Tulia debacle, in which a single undercover narcotics agent falsely charged a large percentage of the town's black population, many of whom were convicted without any corroborating witnesses or evidence. The California legislature has twice passed legislation that would require corroboration for jailhouse informants--Governor Schwarzenegger has vetoed it both times. And while criminal snitches have unique problems that distinguish them from military, national security, and other kinds of informants, all classes of informants share deep unreliability risks. The NATO airstrike provides yet more evidence of the value of having and honoring corroboration requirements.

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