Pubdate: Sun, 19 Nov 2006
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Page: G - 5
Copyright: 2006 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Alexandra Natapoff
Note: Alexandra Natapoff is a law professor at Loyola Law School in 
Los Angeles.
Also: The report and recommendations are on line at
Bookmark: (Crime Policy - United States)
Bookmark: (Policing - United States)
Bookmark: (Corruption - United States)
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


California's criminal-justice system often convicts innocent people.

In recognition of this fact, the state Senate created the California 
Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice. That commission is 
now considering the government's use of criminal informants or 
"snitches," a public policy that has become a disturbing contributor 
to the wrongful conviction problem.

Snitches, of course, have powerful incentives to lie and often 
provide false evidence.

But their unreliability is just one facet of their challenge to the 
justice system.

Informants often commit new crimes with impunity, they make the 
criminal process more secretive and they invite official abuses.

The commission's recommendations on this subject could thus 
potentially strengthen the reliability and fairness of many aspects 
of the criminal-justice process.

The recent wave of exonerations suggests the extent of informant 
unreliability. A 2004 San Francisco Magazine study estimates that 20 
percent of all California wrongful convictions, capital or otherwise, 
are a result of false snitch testimony.

Nationwide, according to Northwestern University Law School's Center 
on Wrongful Convictions, 45.9 percent of documented wrongful capital 
convictions flow from false informant testimony, making "snitches the 
leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital cases." These 
statistics reveal not merely that informants sometimes lie, but that 
juries believe them, that police and prosecutors rely on them, and 
that the traditional safeguards of the criminal trial process are 
inadequate to protect against them.

Unlike the law-abiding citizen who calls 911 to report a crime or who 
testifies at trial, criminal informants face prosecution for their 
own crimes, and thus have deep incentives to lie. If a snitch can 
convince the police officer or the prosecutor that his information is 
useful, he may avoid arrest, avoid the filing of serious charges or 
obtain a reduced sentence.

Snitches may also receive cash, drugs, permission to buy drugs, 
forgiveness for prior crimes and lenience for new crimes, even those 
committed in other jurisdictions. In return, law enforcement agents 
obtain information and convenience: They avoid having to expend time 
and resources prosecuting the snitch.

These secret deals between the government and criminals can last for 
years, and they can be very costly to the public welfare.

In the worse cases, informants continue to commit new crimes, while 
government handlers may turn a blind eye as long as the informant is useful.

This makes snitching a kind of "get-out-of-jail-free" card.

Using informants also undermines governmental accountability. Police 
often cut deals informally with informants without creating a written 
record. The Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department, for example, 
encourages its officers not to "book" or arrest snitches at all. More 
generally, police and prosecutors have broad discretion to decide 
which informants to use and reward, and many of these decisions will 
never be reviewed by a court or made public at all.

In drug investigations, in particular, officials may rely so heavily 
on snitches that their own integrity is compromised. Some 
law-enforcement officials complain that informants have become so 
central to the "war on drugs" that snitches drive their 
investigations. Others worry that traditional, more reliable 
investigative methods, such as undercover operations are given short 
shrift because informants are cheaper and more convenient.

While informants can permit the prosecution of serious criminals, 
sometimes more serious criminals receive the greatest benefits from 
snitching. According to the Wall Street Journal, prosecutors tend to 
reward more serious and knowledgeable offenders.

Similarly, some California police departments maintain a 
"three-arrest" policy under which informants must generate three 
arrests or warrants before they can be rewarded.

This policy naturally favors criminals higher up on the food chain.

It also obviously encourages fabrication by informants who lack 
sufficient information.

Recent news stories have revealed the troubling consequences of using 
compensated criminals.

The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year on Essam Magid, a 
snitch who produced numerous wrongful convictions for his handlers 
before one stubborn defendant finally refused to plead guilty. Recent 
informant scandals in Dallas and Tulia, Texas, likewise illustrate 
the power of corrupt snitches to ruin the lives of dozens of innocent people.

The controversial "stop snitching" phenomenon has raised the profile 
of criminal snitching in the popular culture, and suggests that this 
problematic law enforcement policy is spilling over into the lives of 
innocent and law-abiding citizens in dangerous ways.

In recommending improvements to the informant system, the California 
Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice should consider a 
variety of factors.

California law already imposes some heightened requirements on 
"in-custody informants" or jailhouse snitches.

These should be extended to all criminal snitches, particularly in 
light of the policies of some police departments to release 
informants without arrest. Because law-enforcement officials may lack 
the ability and incentives to check their own informants, judges 
should play a greater role in ensuring the integrity of informant 
information by holding hearings on informant reliability.

More generally, the commission should consider requesting more 
information about law enforcement's use of informants. The California 
Legislature and the public need to know more about this secretive 
practice: How law enforcement uses informants, the costs and benefits 
of doing so, and whether using criminal snitches makes our 
communities safer or more dangerous.

When used properly, informants can be a powerful and appropriate 
investigative tool. But they can also be destructive, crime-producing 
and corrupting. The widespread use of informants means that much of 
the real adjudicative process takes place underground, without rules, 
records or lawyers, and without public or judicial scrutiny of the 
fairness and accuracy of the process.

The commission has thus already made its first contribution by 
initiating public scrutiny of this netherworld of criminal deal-making.



The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice will 
release its report on the government's use of criminal informants by 
5 p.m., Monday, Nov. 20.

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