The mother of a 20-year-old informant is suing two NYPD officers for failing to protect her son who was killed an hour and a half after he tipped off his handler to the location of some guns and drugs. Story here: Mom of slain informant Anthony Velez sues cops for failing to protect him. Such suits are rarely successful–courts have been reluctant to hold police accountable for the fate of their informants, even when the government contributes to the risk. See this post discussing the government’s responsibility for the safety of its informants.
Last year I posted about a Maryland case, Griffin v. State, in which a MySpace comment was used against a defendant: MySpace anti-snitch comment treated as threat. The evidence consisted of a printout of a MySpace page allegedly belonging to the defendant’s girlfriend, which read: “Just remember, snitches get stitches!! U know who u are.” Last week, the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed that ruling, holding that it was improper to permit the prosecution to use the MySpace comment as evidence in light of how easy it is for other users to manipulate and post information on MySpace. Here’s an excerpt from Colin Miller at EvidenceProf Blog about the case:
Griffin is really a terrific opinion whether or not you agree with the court’s conclusion. If you want a detailed description of what courts across the country have done so far with regard to the authentication of electronically stored information on social networking sites, you need look no further than the court’s opinion.
So, why did the court find that the prosecution failed to authenticate the MySpace page properly? The court agreed with the defendant ‘that the trial judge abused his discretion in admitting the MySpace evidence pursuant to Rule 5-901(b)(4), because the picture of Ms. Barber, coupled with her birth date and location, were not sufficient “distinctive characteristics” on a MySpace profile to authenticate its printout, given the prospect that someone other than Ms. Barber could have not only created the site, but also posted the “snitches get stitches” comment. The potential for abuse and manipulation of a social networking site by someone other than its purported creator and/or user leads to our conclusion that a printout of an image from such a site requires a greater degree of authentication than merely identifying the date of birth of the creator and her visage in a photograph on the site in order to reflect that Ms. Barber was its creator and the author of the “snitches get stitches” language.’
In 2008 in Florida, 16-year-old Maciel Martin Videla was killed for being an informant. News story here: Mother of murdered confidential informant sues sheriff’s office. The family’s suit against the Sheriff’s Office is based in large part on an undercover police officer’s admission that the murderer, Alfredo Sotelo-Gomez, told him (the officer) that he knew Videla was a snitch that he was going to “take care of him,” but the officer did not report the threat or warn Videla, who was killed the next day. Narcotics agent: Defendant promised to ‘take care of’ victim. Sotelo-Gomez was convicted yesterday of kidnapping and first-degree murder.
Videla was killed before the Florida legislature passed Rachel’s Law, see Florida’s Rachel’s Law provides some protection to informants, although that legislation would not necessarily have prevented the police from using Videla as an informant.
The cycle of failure continues in Baltimore: last year an FBI drug informant was killed, this year a woman who authorities believe witnessed his murder is being charged with perjury and faces 30 years in prison for refusing to testify about it: Baltimore Sun story here. Kareem Guest was killed after a lawyer allegedly violated an agreement to keep Guest’s cooperation confidential. It’s worth noting that local media initially dismissed Guest’s murder as a routine street killing. As the Sun writes:
Guest, 31, was shot repeatedly in the head and chest on Sept. 20, 2009. In one of those familiar bloody Baltimore weekends, he was one of 13 people shot over two days — one more name on a burgeoning list noting the violence but saying virtually nothing of the circumstances. City police and the news media initially dismissed Guest as a routine victim, a man on probation for drugs, leaving the impression that he was killed, like many others, in some sort of petty dispute over heroin. The FBI knew better.
In cities like Baltimore, it is impossible to know how much street violence is associated with informants–crimes against them as well as crimes committed by them. That’s why I’ve argued that law enforcement agencies should start keeping track of and make public the extent to which urban crime is directly connected to snitching policies and practices.
An interesting story over the weekend in the Philadelphia Inquirer on increased protections for witnesses in light of Philadelphia’s witness intimidation crisis. The city is ramping up prosecutions against intimidators, monitoring courtrooms more closely, and looking for more resources to protect witnesses. These are all important developments. See earlier post on pending federal legislation. The City Council is also considering a bill to impose fines of $2000 on intimidators–perhaps more a symbolic step than anything else. As I’ve written elsewhere, residents in high crime neighborhoods need to feel protected by the police, not only in connection with specific cases in which they might be witnesses but more generally. Philadelphia renewed commitment to witness protection could be a good first step in this direction.