Friday, June 17, 2011

The Cautionary Instruction: Protecting the 'Snitch', Protecting the Process

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
June 17, 2011

Testimony from an FBI agent during a recent murder trial in Omaha, Nebraska revealed an astonishing glimpse into undercover law enforcement investigations. The FBI paid a confidential informant more than $300,000 over five years for information used to help agents probe a drug operation. The payments were for undercover work conducted mostly in the Omaha area.

In some circles a confidential informant is referred to as a “snitch,” a slang term for a person cooperating with police to infiltrate a criminal enterprise, predominately the illegal drug trade. A confidential informant is a person usually accused of a crime who either comes forward, or is asked by police, to offer to assistance in exchange for leniency. Jailhouse informants, inmates often already convicted, are commonly recruited to testify about statements made by other inmates accused of murder, organized crime, sexual assault and just about any other crime.

The confidential informant has a useful place in the investigation and prosecution of criminal conduct. The closely vetted and reliable confidential informant can provide a wealth of information about an ongoing criminal enterprise. A drug informant can make controlled hand-to-hand purchases of illegal drugs without which there would be few successful drug prosecutions.

There are also drawbacks to using informants.

Professor Alexandra Natapoff recently wrote for Reason Magazine that a 2004 study by researchers at Northwestern University Law School, found that “more than 45 percent of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases were due to false informant testimony, making snitches ‘the leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital cases.’”

Some states have taken measures to deal with informants. In Florida, Rachel's Law was named for Rachel Hoffman, a recent college graduate who was arrested for possession of marijuana and Ecstasy. She was persuaded by police to cooperate in a large drug sting in exchange for leniency. She was murdered in the process. Rachel's Law now requires training for police who recruit confidential informants; informants must be told that a sentence reduction may not happen; and informants must be told they have the right to consult an attorney. .

In Pennsylvania, Senate Bill 121 seeks to ban internet websites that publish the name or identity of individuals who cooperate with police investigations.

The Florida statute and the Pennsylvania bill are efforts to protect those who cooperate. However, more work needs to be done to establish a uniform set of guidelines for engaging and using informants in police investigations and criminal prosecutions.

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