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Sentence Reductions for “Snitching” Undermine U.S. Justice System

Sentence Reductions for “Snitching” Undermine U.S. Justice System

by Derek Gilna

Imagine this scenario: Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents bust a small-time drug dealer for, let’s say, nickel-and-diming in heroin. They take him to booking, run his fingerprints and discover this is his third arrest. As a multiple offender facing a long stretch in prison and with a public defender at his side, the suspect offers a deal.

“Cut my sentence,” he says, “and I’ll give you my distributor.”

The lead agent and his partner glance at each other. Here it is: a chance to nail the slippery kingpin who runs a multi-million dollar heroin ring that covers three states, but who has somehow managed to elude capture again and again. Never mind that coincidentally their case-closure rate will skyrocket, making them look good. There is a brief pause as the lead agent again glances at his partner, then back at our suspect.

“Done,” he states, closing the deal.

Fiction, you say? The oft-repeated storyline to the take-your-pick selection of seemingly endless TV crime dramas?

You might think so, and you’d be right. But in the daily trenches of law enforcement, this scenario is not as far-fetched as it appears. In fact, wheeling and dealing is more of a way of life than many police officers and prosecutors care to openly admit. It is, quite simply, the practice of using snitches to obtain convictions. [See: PLN, June 2010, p.1; Feb. 2006, p.28].

But wait, you say. What about the old saying, “snitches get stitches?” Don’t rats end up at the bottom of the nearest river? If that’s true, then the river bottom is a very crowded place.

Nationwide, court records indicate that 25% of offenders sent to federal prison for drug-related crimes provided information to prosecutors in exchange for shorter sentences. In some jurisdictions, like Idaho, Colorado and the Eastern District of Kentucky, more than half did. Sometimes these sentence reductions can amount to 50% or more, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Given that incentive, it’s inevitable that some prisoners would find a way to profit from such a dysfunctional system. According to a 2012 USA Today investigation that examined hundreds of thousands of court cases, “snitching has become so commonplace that in the past five years at least 48,895 federal convicts – one out of every eight – had their prison sentences reduced in exchange for helping government investigators....”

Citizens who live their lives happily ignorant of the criminal justice system are unaware that it is a closed loop, starting at the top. Judges, many of whom are former prosecutors and who draw their paychecks from the same government that pays the police and prosecution, are generally hesitant to cast doubt on the legitimacy of their brethren’s crime-fighting methods. Further, judge-made case law over the years has upheld the right of the police to use almost any tactic to solve crimes, including lying and the use of informants.

As a result, prosecutors at both the state and federal levels face few checks upon their power. Knowing that jurors fear crime and seek safer neighborhoods, U.S. Attorneys and their local district attorney counterparts gather information to use as evidence in criminal cases from whomever they can, including prisoners seeking to shorten their sentences.

The incarcerated – and the people who guard them – know there are few secrets in jail or prison. People talk about everything, including their cases. The more canny and opportunistic prisoners realize from first-hand experience that prosecutors “pay” well with sentence reductions for information on someone they have insufficient evidence to convict.

To the naïve or uninitiated, law enforcement, in its battle against crime, should be able to use every tool at its disposal. If that means relying on testimony from one criminal to convict another, so be it. Except in the most obvious cases of prosecutorial overreach, juries hold their collective noses and vote guilty, ignoring misgivings about the source of the incriminating “proof” or the motives of the jailhouse snitch who takes the stand against a defendant.

However, the USA Today investigation that examined the culture of snitching questioned the usefulness of such testimony and cast doubt on whether it serves the ends of justice.

Justice, in its purest form, relies on truth – but within the snitching community, truth is a rare commodity and can be the first casualty in a system that seems more interested in obtaining convictions than dispensing justice. Prosecutors eager to close a case often reward criminals with sentence reductions for inaccurate, manufactured or questionable “evidence” or testimony against another offender.

The case of federal prisoner Marcus Watkins is one example of the unintended consequences of the institutionalized culture of snitching. According to USA Today, “For a fee, [Watkins] and his associates on the outside sold ... information about other criminals that they could turn around and offer up to federal agents in hopes of shaving years off their prison sentences.”

Watkins’ case is not the only one of its kind, but certainly one of the most documented. His outside associates collected and offered to sell information about the drug trade to fellow prisoners at the Atlanta City Detention Center, most of whom had the money, and incentive, to pay for it. And they were not the only customers; according to Watkins, “the biggest buyer of information is the government.” Only the currency was different. “They pay in years,” Watkins said, claiming that federal agents he spoke with “knew money’s been changing hands. They basically authorized all of this.”

Robert McBurney, a former federal prosecutor from Atlanta, called it “a pernicious situation that sadly, undid some good works,” but FBI agent Mile Brosas testified under oath that agents acted “just based on the names that Mr. Watkins gave us.” At the time Watkins provided the information and names referred to by Brosas, he had already been behind bars for some time. Therefore, the logical assumption would have been that he was receiving his information from outside the prison – though that did not deter the prosecutors who relied on that information in other criminal cases.

The court was not amused. The then-chief judge of the federal district court in Atlanta, Judge Julie E. Carnes, decried the “abominable situation” of such information peddling, stating she was “appalled that it’s going on to the level it appears to be going on.”

And Watkins’ case is clearly not an isolated example. As noted by Professor Tim Saviello at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, “People are willing to pay $20,000 or $30,000 to get a piece of information. That tells you how valuable it is.”

The pressure to snitch is overwhelming. Suspects accused of federal crimes almost always accept plea bargains. Those who don’t are generally convicted at trial, and the lengthier sentences they typically receive for refusing to plead guilty are known as the “trial penalty.” For someone in such a position, who may be facing a mandatory minimum prison term of 10 to 20 years, informing on fellow criminals is their only chance at leniency.

The fact remains that most prisoners serving time for drug offenses are not major players in the drug trade. In 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that only 11% of federal drug trafficking defendants were major traffickers; the rest were lower-level offenders. Even “safety-valve” modifications to the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines did little to reduce the explosion in the number of prisoners convicted of drug crimes. Such offenders are under pressure to offer “substantial assistance” to the government, often in the form of information about other drug dealers, as a means of obtaining sentencing relief. During the past five years, fully one-third of drug traffickers sentenced in federal court received sentence reductions for providing “substantial assistance.”

Drug conspiracy laws enacted in 1988 also contributed to the influx of federal drug offenders, allowing the government to win convictions for what prisoners often term “ghost drugs,” by swearing that any information provided was about a suspect who was part of the snitch’s drug ring. Unfortunately, such a system can snare innocent bystanders – defendants who become the victims of lies told by their codefendants who have figured out how to manipulate the sentencing laws in order to reduce their own prison terms.

One of the most egregious examples of misuse of the justice system by both police and prosecutors occurred in Louisiana, where the Colomb family suffered years of prosecution, imprisonment and economic disaster that began with a minor drug possession charge against the teenaged son of Ann Colomb, the family matriarch. According to court filings, prosecutors claimed that Colomb and her sons, living on a mostly black street in a white section of the town of Church Point, Louisiana, ran a $70 million drug operation.

The trouble started when two of Colomb’s sons, Sammie and Edward, pleaded no contest to felony possession and received probation. Church Point, like many southern towns, suffered from documented racial tensions, heightened by the fact that another Colomb son, Danny, dated a white woman. According to Rodney Baum, the Colomb family lawyer, “They took a bunch of unrelated police harassments of these people over 10 years, coupled it with a parade of jailhouse snitches.... It was ridiculous.” The federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Bret Grayson, used more than 30 imprisoned informants to compile his evidence of a drug conspiracy.

As the case neared trial, U.S. District Court Judge Tucker Melancon began having misgivings and sought to bar many of the informants from testifying. The case, despite being already weakened by a lack of hard evidence and the fact that Colomb family members had continued to work construction and oilfield jobs while supposedly netting millions in the illicit drug trade, moved forward. The jury convicted the family in 2006 and they went to prison.

Then another convicted federal prisoner, Quinn Alex, in a letter to his former prosecutor, revealed the scope and details of a snitching-for-hire scheme at the Federal Correctional Institution in Three Rivers, Texas, the source of the information used by U.S. Attorney Grayson in the Colomb case. A motion for a new trial soon followed, and Judge Melancon vacated the convictions and freed the family.

The Colombs were “fortunate,” as they were released from prison and justice prevailed. But under any definition of justice they shouldn’t have been convicted in the first place, and the case vividly demonstrated the unintended consequences of the snitching industry that is firmly entrenched in the U.S. justice system. Ann Colomb expressed it best: “What happened to us should never happen to anyone. It breaks my heart....”

But the real victim is justice itself, in the form of wrongful convictions, official corruption, public deception and the weakened legitimacy of the criminal justice system in the eyes of the public. The use of snitches has become so prevalent that the practice and its damaging effects are the subject of a book, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice, by Alexandra Natapoff, published in April 2011.

Under such scrutiny the practice of snitching, spurred by harsh sentencing laws and win-at-any-cost prosecutors, might gradually fade. Snitching has already faced a backlash due to a controversial DVD series called “Stop Snitching,” created by Ronnie Thomas, a Baltimore resident also known as Skinny Suge. The first video was released in 2004 and a sequel followed in 2007; Baltimore police have called the DVDs a form of witness intimidation.

Suge is now serving a 19-year federal prison term. In an ironic twist of fate, his 14-year-old son, Najee Thomas, was murdered in April 2014, shot in the head as he sat inside his home in the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore. Police have not said whether Najee’s death was related to his father’s violent past, but blame the DVDs for a declining case-closure rate. They say the “Stop Snitching” videos have created an increasing unwillingness by members of the public to come forward with crime tips.

The police asked for the public’s help in solving Najee Thomas’ murder, but thus far no arrests have been made.

Perhaps a TV crime drama might not be the best setting for a discussion of the culture of snitching in our nation’s criminal justice system. A more appropriate venue might be a game show – for example, “Let’s Make a Deal.”


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