While using criminal informants can produce bad evidence and even sometimes more crime, the snitching phenomenon is problematic in other, more complex ways. Criminal snitches themselves are often vulnerable people–they may be young, undereducated, or suffering from substance abuse or mental disabilities. Indeed, this is true more generally for the majority of people in the criminal system. When police pressure such suspects to cooperate, many people feel as if they have no choice, even if cooperating is not in their best interests. Last year, 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman became an informant in Tallahassee, Florida, trying to avoid jailtime for her possession of a small amount of drugs. Police sent her on a sting operation during which she was killed. Her death triggered an outcry and resulted in ground breaking legislation to regularize the process by which police turn people into informants. My op-ed on the new law is published here in the Daily Journal, and it describes some of the law’s features:
It creates new, basic mechanisms to protect informants and to increase police accountability. For example, Rachel’s Law requires law enforcement agencies to establish policies and procedures, including recordkeeping rules, to guide police when they turn a suspect into an informant – essential regulations that most United States police departments lack. The law also requires police to tell suspects that police cannot make promises about what charges will be filed or dropped in exchange for cooperation – only a prosecutor can do that. Police must also consider an informant’s suitability – including their age, maturity, and risk of physical harm – before entering into an agreement. This last requirement is a nod to the fact that many experts concluded that Rachel Hoffman was unsuited to the dangerous task that police assigned her.
The bottom line is that being an informant can be a very dangerous thing. Not only may the undercover work itself pose risks, but snitching can subject people to retribution and violence from all sort of sources. More on this in later posts.