It became a cause that spread from Baltimore's inner-city through Boston, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and dozens of other cities. More than a code of the street, the “stop snitching” phenomenon reflects mistrust of police in communities nationwide. And that's just one unsettling consequence of the rapidly expanding practice of relying on “snitches,” a practice used not only to catch drug dealers and street criminals, but mobsters and sophisticated offenders in the corporate and political arenas.
“Using criminal informants exacerbates some of the worst features of the U.S. justice system,” attests legal scholar Alexandra Natapoff. In SNITCHING: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice (NYU Press; November 2009; $29.95), she reveals the pervasive and often disturbing significance of this secretive and strikingly unregulated law enforcement staple. Drawing on interviews with criminal justice experts, accounts from police detectives, prosecutors, and FBI and DEA agents, and dozens of shocking and tragic true stories, Natapoff can discuss:
o How snitching hurts vulnerable communities the most. Poor minority neighborhoods suffer the worst effects of snitching-including informant crime and unreliability. One study, for example, found that innocent black and Hispanic households in San Diego were disproportionately the target of bad search warrants, 80 percent of which relied on confidential informants.
o How snitching encourages police and prosecutorial misconduct and corruption. Some of the cases are notorious-for example, Boston FBI agents permitted four innocent men to be convicted of murder and serve decades in prison to protect their Irish mob hit men informants. Some incidents are small scale outrages. Police officers in Columbus, Ohio, were having sexual relations with an informant. To help their snitch get a job as a stripper, the police stole another local woman's drivers license and social security number and gave her identity to their snitch.
o How snitching exploits vulnerable snitches. Vulnerable people like addicts and young frightened suspects are more likely to cave under police pressure to cooperate, even if the benefits are uncertain and the risks extremely high. To avoid cocaine charges, for example, first-time offender Amy Gepfert agreed to pose as a prostitute and engage in oral sex with another suspect. Twenty-three year old Rachel Hoffman tragically agreed to participate in an undercover drug sting and was killed by the criminal targets.
Beyond exposing the hidden harms of snitching, Natapoff makes a compelling case and concrete recommendations for reform. As she acknowledges, the most important reform is the most difficult: changing the culture of secrecy and deregulation that fosters official corruption, public deception, wrongful convictions, and unchecked criminal behavior. “The system currently handles the problem by asking us to accept on faith that unregulated snitching is worth its risks, without either demonstrating its full benefits or revealing its true costs,” the author reflects. “For a public policy of this far-reaching importance, such faith is not enough.”
Alexandra Natapoff is Professor of Law at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, a blogger, and a prize-winning legal scholar.
SNITCHING: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice
by Alexandra Natapoff
o When snitching leads to more crime. After getting caught running an identify-theft ring, Marvin Jeffery evaded prison by becoming an informant. While providing information to San Francisco's gang unit, he launched a new identity-theft operation, committed additional offenses (including attempting to steal an ATM machine from a corner market), violated his probation, and incurred several arrest warrants. Yet, police allowed him to remain free because of his cooperation. Finally, Jeffery disappeared after he sold an illegal AK-47 that was used to kill a police officer.
o When snitching leads to tragic violence. 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman, a graduate of Florida State University, was arrested in Tallahassee for possessing a small amount of marijuana. She became an informant to avoid going to prison. Without the knowledge of her parents or her lawyer, Hoffman agreed to participate in an undercover sting to buy a gun and a large amount of cocaine and ecstasy from two local drug dealers. During the sting, she was murdered by those dealers.
The theory is simple: a suspect provides incriminating information about someone else in exchange for a lesser charge, a lighter sentence, or the chance to walk away. In practice, however-as the cases of Marvin Jeffery, Rachel Hoffman, and thousands of others attest-using criminal informants can be risky, violent, and unfair. Yet, despite its secretive, unregulated, sometimes corrupt, and occasionally deadly nature, criminal informant use has become a central feature of America's approach to fighting crime. And, like the criminal system itself, the practice of turning suspects into “snitches” is rapidly expanding.
In SNITCHING: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice (NYU Press; November 2009; $29.95), legal scholar Alexandra Natapoff sheds critical light on how one of the most powerful weapons in the law enforcement arsenal exacerbates some of the worst aspects of the U.S. justice system. As the author makes clear, her goal is not to ban this clandestine form of plea bargaining, but to expose its hidden realities and raise public awareness about its troubling implications.
“While the benefits of informant use are often well recognized, its down sides and dangers typically remain invisible,” Natapoff notes. “By analyzing informants both as a law enforcement tool and as an engine of social influence and public governance, the book reveals the pervasive and often disturbing significance of this secretive law enforcement practice.”
Through interviews with criminal justice experts, accounts from police detectives, prosecutors, and FBI and DEA agents, and dozens of shocking true stories, SNITCHING provides a rare look at what really goes on in the shadows between snitches and their “handlers.” Chapters document the widespread use of criminal informants, explore the legal and political ramifications of this secretive practice, and reveal the profound human costs. Topics include:
o The destructive impact of widespread snitching on high-crime, low-income urban communities and, in particular, on the African-American men who live there.
o The “stop snitching” cultural phenomenon, tracing how an underground rap DVD made its way from the crime-ridden streets of Baltimore across dozens of inner cities and into the national consciousness about witness intimidation and distrust of police.
o Staggering data on the notorious unreliability of snitches-for example, a Northwestern University study traced 45.9 percent of documented wrongful capital convictions to false informant testimony-and the way police and prosecutorial practices undermine the system's ability to check informant misinformation.
o The largely overlooked role of snitching in making the entire criminal process more secretive and less accountable, with insights into how numerous disclosure rules involving discovery and public record keeping have been rolled back to accommodate informant confidentiality.
o The use of snitches not only in the arenas of drug trafficking, gangs, and street crime, but in the investigation of all kinds of white collar and corporate crimes, political corruption, the mafia, and terrorism.
After exposing the many harmful, and sometimes horrific, consequences of this ubiquitous practice, SNITCHING makes a compelling case for regulating and improving informant use. What's more, Natapoff presents an exciting array of reforms currently emerging at the federal, state, and local levels. An unprecedented exposé and comprehensive analysis of the costs and benefits of informant use, SNITCHING is a major step towards restoring the integrity of our criminal justice system.
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