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Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice

Alexandra Natapoff
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 276
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Winner of the 2010 American Bar Association Honorable Mention for BooksAlbert Burrell spent thirteen years on death row for a murder he did not commit. Atlanta police killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston during a misguided raid on her home. After being released by Chicago prosecutors, Darryl Moore - drug dealer, hit man, and rapist - returned home to rape an eleven-year-old girl.Such tragedies are consequences of snitching - police and prosecutors offering deals to criminal offenders in exchange for information. Although it is nearly invisible to the public, criminal snitching has invaded the American legal system in risky and sometimes shocking ways. Snitching is the first comprehensive analysis of this powerful and problematic practice, in which informant deals generate unreliable evidence, allow criminals to escape punishment, endanger the innocent, compromise the integrity of police work, and exacerbate tension between police and poor urban residents. Driven by dozens of real-life stories and debacles, the book exposes the social destruction that snitching can cause in high-crime African American neighborhoods, and how using criminal informants renders our entire penal process more secretive and less fair. Natapoff also uncovers the farreaching legal, political, and cultural significance of snitching: from the war on drugs to hip hop music, from the FBI's mishandling of its murderous mafia informants to the new surge in white collar and terrorism informing. She explains how existing law functions and proposes new reforms. By delving into the secretive world of criminal informants, Snitching reveals deep and often disturbing truths about the way American justice really works.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-5904-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Ninety-two-year-old Kathryn Johnston was dead, which meant big trouble for Officers Smith and Junier.

    Three hours earlier, everything had looked so promising. Atlanta police had busted Fabian Sheats for the third time in four months, and the local drug dealer-turned-informant had tipped them off to a major stash at 933 Neal Street—an entire kilo of cocaine. Sheats wasn’t one of their registered informants so they couldn’t use him to get a warrant, but Smith and Junier applied for a warrant anyway by inventing an imaginary snitch. They called him a “reliable confidential informant” and told the magistrate judge that...

  5. CHAPTER 1 The Real Deal: Understanding Snitching
    (pp. 15-44)

    THE CENTRAL,DEFINING characteristic of snitching is the deal between the government and a suspect. In that deal, the government ignores or reduces the suspect’s potential criminal liability in exchange for information. From street corners to jailhouses to courtrooms around the country, thousands of suspects work off their guilt by cooperating with police or prosecutors. Their crimes may go lightly punished, or not punished at all. Indeed, if the deal takes place early enough, these crimes may never even be officially recorded.

    This method of resolving criminal liability is a radical departure from the usual ways in which we handle questions...

  6. CHAPTER 2 To Catch a Thief: The Legal Rules of Snitching
    (pp. 45-68)

    FROM THE OUTSIDE, informant use often looks like a game without rules, in which everything is negotiable and no law is sacrosanct. This state of affairs is a direct function of what I will call “informant law”: that body of laws and court doctrines that define the legal parameters of the relationship between informants and the government. “Informant law” is centrally characterized by official discretion and flexibility, the inapplicability of many traditional criminal procedure constraints, and the overt toleration of criminal behavior and secrecy. In other words, the official rules of the informant game are that the usual rules do...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Beyond Unreliable
    (pp. 69-82)

    ALL TOO OFTEN, the U.S. criminal system convicts the innocent. The now-steady stream of exonerations is stark evidence that even in the most serious cases, innocent defendants may still plead guilty or be convicted at trial despite the existence of some of the most elaborate procedural protections in the world.³ The sources of this disaster are complex: an overwhelmed public defender system, long sentences, high trial conviction rates, and systemic pressures that steer defendants into guilty pleas are just some of the reasons why innocent defendants may dread their day in court.

    Criminal informants are an important piece of the...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Secret Justice
    (pp. 83-100)

    INFORMANT PRACTICES ARE inherently secretive: snitches often need their identities to be protected for safety, while the effectiveness of informant-driven investigations turns on their clandestine nature.

    But the secretive effects of using informants go far beyond protecting ongoing investigations or concealing particular informants’ identities. Snitching has altered the ways in which investigations are conducted and recorded; it affects public record keeping by police and prosecutors, discovery practices, and what gets written down during plea negotiations. It has also shaped the informational rules prescribed by Supreme Court doctrine, internal judicial branch information policies, and even information-sharing between the Department of Justice...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Snitching in the ‘Hood
    (pp. 101-120)

    ONE OF THE most infamous aspects of the U.S. criminal system is its impact on poor, black, urban communities. Largely in connection with the war on drugs, criminal law enforcement has become a pervasive presence in the nation’s inner cities, especially for the young African American men who live there. Street sweeps and arrests are more prevalent in these neighborhoods; police tactics are more intrusive; and the penal process treats young black male offenders especially harshly.

    Statistics offer a glimpse of the scale of the phenomenon. Approximately one in three African American males between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine...

  10. CHAPTER 6 “Stop Snitching”
    (pp. 121-138)

    IN 1998, I taught an after-school law class in inner-city Baltimore. The class attracted a variety of kids, ranging from elementary-school to high-school age. Some were interested, some were just hanging around the community center with nothing else to do, and some had parents, coaches, or probation officers who pressured them into attending. I was trying to explain several complex constitutional principles, and the students were losing interest. Finally, a bright-eyed boy who looked to be about twelve years old raised his hand.

    “I got a question,” he said, leaning forward intently. “Police let dealers stay on the corner ‘cuz...

  11. CHAPTER 7 How the Other Half Lives: White Collar and Other Kinds of Cooperation
    (pp. 139-174)

    LIKE JUSTICE ITSELF, informant practices are deeply connected to their social and economic surroundings. As the last two chapters described, snitching practices in poor urban neighborhoods are fundamentally shaped by the typical poverty and vulnerability of suspects, and more generally by the lack of resources that residents of such communities bring to bear in their interactions with law enforcement.

    While informants are central to street-and drug-crime enforcement, the government deploys informants in a broad range of investigations, most prominently against corporate fraud, organized crime, political corruption, and, increasingly, terrorism. Even as it retains its fundamental character, snitching in these realms...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Reform
    (pp. 175-200)

    USING INFORMANTS IS complicated. Not only does it implicate many formal laws and procedures; it engages core features of American law enforcement culture. It is connected to inequalities and vulnerabilities in communities and institutions; and it reflects systemic racial, economic, and social biases. Its impact is simultaneously legal, historical, cultural, and personal. Because informant use and its problems are rooted in so many different social institutions, they cannot be fixed solely by changing legal rules.

    This is true for many challenges facing the criminal system. The justice process is not controlled by law alone; rather, it is influenced by social...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 201-212)

    LAW ENFORCEMENT PRACTICES confront us with deep truths about our collective civic choices. This book has unearthed numerous ways in which informant use is a problematic feature, not merely of the criminal process, but of American governance writ large: from the official tolerance and even perpetuation of crime to the heavy use of snitches in predominantly black communities to the governmental secrecy and lack of accountability that make so many other harmful features of informant use possible. This final chapter examines how snitching, as part of the criminal process more generally, has shaped the American polity in some disturbing ways....

  14. Notes
    (pp. 213-252)
  15. Index
    (pp. 253-259)
  16. About the Author
    (pp. 260-260)