The System of Snitching

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“Crime is contagious. If the government
becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt
for law. To declare that the government
may commit crimes in order to secure the
conviction of a private criminal_would
bring terrible retribution.“
—Supreme Court Justice
Louis Brandeis, 1928
May I remind you of how it is supposed to go when a person
is caught in illegal wrongdoing? They are arrested by
the police and have the right to legal representation, either
a private attorney or a court-appointed public defender.
The suspect must decide to plead “guilty” or “not-guilty,”
and if the latter, they have a right to a trial. This centuriesold
process is bounded by rules from the Constitution and
the Bill of Rights, monitored by professionals and leaves a
paper trail. The purpose of the checks and balances of due
process is to find the truth and to prove guilt beyond a reasonable
doubt. This model describes much of what happens
in our justice system, however, there is another; it’s
called “snitching.”
Instead of serving his sentence for running an identitytheft
ring in San Francisco, Marvin Jeffery became an
informant. Though Jeffery committed additional offences
including violation of probation, police permitted him to
remain at-large because of his “cooperation.” After his illegal
sale of an AK-47 machine gun that was used to kill a
police officer, Jeffery disappeared.
Snitching involves a negotiated deal between the government
and a suspect. This process corrupts and subverts
the very institutions it is said to serve. In exchange for
information from a suspect, the government-in the form of
prosecutors and police, may ignore or reduce a suspect’s
potential criminal liability. Informants’ may reduce or nullify
sentences, sometimes even keeping crimes off the
record entirely. Trials occur in less than 5% of all cases
where criminal charges are filed. Interestingly, 95% of all
prisoners nationally report having taken plea deals. In
some cases, defendants choose not to go to trial after they
are told there is potential hostile testimony against them.
They are not told what the testimony consists of, nor given
the identity of the source. They never find out if the testimony
could have stood up under cross-examination. If
defendants do go to trial after having been offered a plea
and lose, they can expect much longer sentences.
The use of snitches and the plea deal processes are
devoid of consistent rules, and are used at the discretion of
individual law enforcement officials. The quickest form of
a deal is made at the scene of a crime itself when a suspect
is implicated and then “flipped” or “turned” based on a
conversation with police. Police paint threats of extreme
punishment and suggest it can be avoided if the accused
cooperate and troll for information on other criminal
activities. These actions can encourage individuals with
limited involvement in crime to become more deeply
involved in order to provide valued information. Meanwhile,
the informant’s initial crime is left unreported so it
may be held over the snitch’s head. Ninety
percent of the criminal justice system is
handled at the state, county, and local
level. In this un-regulated territory, the
Snitch system may catch more criminals
because it has created them.
The Snitch system puts the police in
the business of abetting crime in other
ways. Informants often work, not just for
leniency, but also for money. The FBI and
Drug Enforcement Agency have budgets in
the millions of dollars for paying informants.
In 1993, federal agencies paid
informants approximately 100 million
dollars. Local police departments typically
pay informants through vouchers or in
cash. All of this is completely legal. These
factors highlight ways in which the Snitch
system compromises our justice system
and upends its goals.
The potential for subversion is exacerbated
by the lack of oversight and regulation.
The snitch and deal process is almost
always off the record. The exception is
when something unusual happens that
“outs” an informant. Take the case of
Shance Dalton in Champaign County.
Having pled guilty in October 2006 to
selling 5.4 grams of crack cocaine, Dalton
faced 30 years to life in the federal penitentiary.
Dalton was known to be friends
with Erick Johnson, a suspect in a nineyear-
old murder. Dalton was offered a deal in exchange for
fingering this friend. He was to receive the minimum sentence
for murder, 20 years, and a reduced sentence from
the federal court. During the trial, Dalton surprised everyone
by testifying that, in fact, he himself had pulled the
trigger and that Johnson was just there to make a drug buy.
Dalton said, “you’d probably give up your own mama
looking at that much time,” and “they (police detectives)
let me write a story and recite it to them. They taped it and
brought it to you. Facing all that time is like somebody
putting a gun to your head.” This example highlights
potential problem with this system. Furthermore, research
shows that juries believe these witnesses at the same rate
as non-informants. When deals are made, the resulting
information is often severely flawed. The Center on
Wrongful Convictions which deals only with DNA evidence
cases has highlighted such flaws. In state and county
cases, there is rarely evidence presented on whether witnesses
have received deals in exchange for their testimony,
in fact, the state and the informant can say “deal, what
deal?” because they are rarely put into writing and they
don’t go into effect until after testimony is given at trial.
There are other costs of the Snitch system beyond its
weaknesses in obtaining truth and eliminating reasonable
doubt. This system has the effect of spreading distrust and
fear. Vulnerable, poverty-stricken neighborhoods have
been compared to communist countries laced with neighborhood
spies. People feel they cannot speak freely or fully
trust anyone, even among families. This becomes a mechanism
of social-control through fear and suspicion. Once
the greatest resources for vulnerable and poor people, the
solidarity and loyalty within a community is destroyed by
thoughts of troops of people reporting to the government
on the activities of their neighbors. Children see some people
dealing drugs with impunity while others are snatched
out of school or off the street. The criminal justice system
appears to be irrational, unpredictable, and arbitrary.
Some speak of “catching a case,” in which criminal prosecution
is compared to coming down with a random virus.
The Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) cite
reforms in Illinois as leading examples of what is needed.
A state law passed in 2000 requires reliability hearings for
“jailhouse snitches” in capital cases. These hearings precede
the trial itself and allow judges and defense attorneys
to probe witnesses and deals keeping testimony out of trials
when it is ruled to be unreliable. The CWC recommends
that this process be adopted for all trials, not just
capital cases. Adopting these types of reforms can help
close loopholes in our system that undercut the values and
ethics espoused in the foundations of our judicial system,
government, and society.

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