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Feature: Snitching in the Spotlight -- House Committee Holds Hearing on Informant Abuses

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #496)
Consequences of Prohibition
Drug War Issues
Politics & Advocacy

The House Judiciary Committee heard police and legal experts say there needs to be more oversight and tighter standards on the use of confidential informants in law enforcement at a July 19 hearing. The hearing was called by committee chair Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) to look into ways to avoid abuses such as those that led to the shooting death of 92-year-old Atlanta resident Kathryn Johnston last December.

Kathryn Johnston
Johnston was killed after opening fire on undercover Atlanta narcotics officers who were breaking down her door to serve a "no-knock" search warrant for cocaine. Those officers had obtained the warrant from an Atlanta magistrate by falsely telling him that a confidential informant had made drug buys at Johnston's location. Later that same day, those officers attempted to get that informant to lie and back them up, but the informant instead went to federal authorities. Two officers involved have since pleaded guilty to manslaughter, while a third awaits trial on false imprisonment charges.

While it was the Johnston killing that led directly to last month's hearing, concern over the widespread use of informants, or snitches, has been mounting for years, especially in regard to drug law enforcement. Hostility toward law enforcement either threatening low-level offenders to intimidate them into informing on others ("Do you want to be gang-raped for 30 years in prison instead?") or cultivating mercenary informers who infiltrate communities and set up drug deals for monetary gain has been simmering in poor and minority communities for years.

The "Stop Snitching" movement, much maligned by law enforcement officials as undermining the rule of law, is, at least in part, a direct consequence of the drug war's reliance on confidential informants. Especially in black communities, which have been hard hit the drug war, anger over drug war tactics, including the use of informants, is palpable.

Now, with Democrats once again in control of Congress, Congress is ready to listen -- and possibly to act. Rep. Conyers said at the hearing and in meetings with American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Drug Law Reform Project and Drug Policy Alliance staffers that is he preparing legislation to attempt to rein in the out of control use of informants. The use of informants is "totally out of control," said Conyers. "It's every law enforcement agency for itself. This is corrupting the entire criminal justice process," he warned.

"We've got a serious problem here that goes beyond coughing up cases where snitches were helpful," Conyers continued. "The whole criminal justice system is being intimidated by the way this thing is being run and in many cases, especially at the local level, mishandled... A lot of people have died because of misinformation, starting with Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta. Getting the wrong house, they cost the 92-year old woman her life. But then law enforcement tried to intimidate the confidential informant to clean the mess up. Then you get law enforcement involved in perpetrating the cover up of what is clearly criminal activity. So this is not a small deal that brings us here today and we are going to do something about it."

There will be more hearings to come, Conyers promised. "This is the first time that we have gotten into this matter in more than a dozen years... But this is only the tip of the iceberg. We've got to hold the most thorough hearings in recent American history on the whole question of the criminal justice system, which goes way beyond informants. It's been picked up and articulated by many of the witnesses, that we are talking about the culture of the law enforcement system and how it's got to be changed. One hearing starts us off, and I'm very proud of what we have accomplished here today."

At the hearing, law enforcement personnel and legal scholars alike acknowledged that the informant system is loosely supervised and can lead to corner-cutting and abuses by police. "The government's use of criminal informants is largely secretive, unregulated and unaccountable," Alexandra Natapoff, a Loyola Law School professor who studies the issue, told the panel.

The massive reliance on informants makes communities not safer but more dangerous, said Natapoff. "What does this mean for law abiding residents like Mrs. Johnston?" she asked. "It means they must live in close proximity to criminal offenders looking for a way to work off their liability. Indeed, it made Kathryn Johnston's home a target for a drug dealer.It also means that police in these neighborhoods tolerate petty drug offenses in exchange for information, and so addicts and low level dealers can often remain on the street. It also makes law enforcement less rigorous: police who rely heavily on informants are more likely to act on an uncorroborated tip from a suspected drug dealer. In other words, a neighborhood with many criminal informants in it is a more dangerous and insecure place to live."

The massive reliance on informants also corrodes police-community relations, Natapoff said. "This question about the use of confidential informants goes to the heart of the problem of police-community relations," she told the panel. "It's an historical problem in this country, it's not reducible to the problem of informing or snitching or stop snitching, but I would submit that the 20-year policy on the part of state, local and federal government of using confidential informants and sending criminals back into the community with some form of impunity and lenience, and turning a blind eye to their bad behavior, has increased the distrust between police and community."

The Rev. Markel Hutchins, pastor of the Philadelphia Baptist Church in Atlanta and a spokesman for the Johnston family, also addressed the hearing. "There is a problem with the culture of policing in America," Hutchins said. "And because of that culture, far too often police officers feel that they can do what they want to under the cover of law. This committee has a unique opportunity to help protect even the officers themselves that engage in this kind of behavior by insolating them from the capacity or the potential they have to engage in this kind of corrupt behavior."

There must be more accountability in the courts, said Hutchins. "I will submit to this committee that if the fabricated confidential informant that was mentioned and feloniously used in the Kathryn Johnston case had been required to appear before a judge, Ms. Johnston would still be alive today... It was just too easy for these police officers to go in front of a judge and to lie. They've engaged in this kind of practice for years and it's been happening all over the country... If police had done due diligence, they would have known that a 92-year old woman lived there in the home by herself. There was no corroboration. There was not any appropriate investigative work done. But I think that probably the most poignant thing that happened to Ms. Johnston is had she not been 92-years old, and had she been my age, 29-30 year old, and a young black man, we might not be having this hearing right now," Hutchins said.

John Conyers, addressing DRCNet's March 2005 Perry Fund scholarship fundraiser
Even National Narcotic Officers' Association Coalition President Ronald Brooks agreed that reforms are necessary. "We need to take an absolute hard line posture when law enforcement breaks the rules, like in any other profession," he told the committee. "The conduct at first blush committed in Atlanta, and in Tulia, and in Dallas, and in a host of other places was criminal conduct by law enforcement officers and that conduct should be punished vigorously... We need to instill an ethical culture that says that the ends never justify the means... We only have one opportunity to have credibility in our courts and in our communities," Brooks said.

"It was a really good hearing," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Conyers said he wants to introduce omnibus legislation overhauling the use of confidential informants. Right now, we and the ACLU Drug Policy Law Project are working with his office to come up with specific language," Piper said. "The question now is what the bill is going to look like. If anyone has suggestions, contact us or Conyers' office," he said.

"The hearing was amazing!" said Ana del Llano, informant campaign coordinator for the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. "We are hoping that when Congress comes back from recess in September, we will be able to have a bill filed."

Advocates are focusing on a number of reforms surrounding the use of informants:

  • guidelines on the use and regulation of informants' corroboration;

  • reliability hearings, pre-warrant and pre-sentencing;
  • performance measures;
  • data collection;
  • requiring federal agents to notify state and local law enforcement when they have evidence that their informant committed a violent felony, or evidence that an accused person is innocent;
  • placing conditions on federal funding that will require state and local police to follow the provisions of this legislation.

It's about time -- both for hearings and for the passage of legislation to rein in the snitches, said Nora Callahan, director of the November Coalition, a drug reform group that concentrates on federal drug war prisoners. "The informant system is a secret, hidden policing system," she said. "When queried, most police departments, federal, state and local, don't have any written policy or procedures with regard to their use of informants. How dependent is law enforcement on a system of snitches? Police departments can't give us data on snitches. Researchers have discovered that about 90% of search warrants are granted by judges who see nothing more than an officer's statement from a confidential informant. They bust down doors on words of people trading information for police favors."

The system is truly pernicious, Callahan argued. "Some psychologists teach police departments how to turn people into cooperators, also called informers or snitches. It's time, the threat of long years in prison, that reduces people to rolling over on their mothers, or their best friends," she said.

Now, at long last, Congress may intervene. But last month's hearing was only the beginning.

Watch the entire hearing online and read official written testimony here.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

It's about time to curtail this ignominious practice. Unfortunately, the Courts have declined to do so, at leased in the face of challenges based on such a practice being an improper "payment" of witnesses for their testimony. As a criminal defense attorney, if I were to pay, or offer a benefit to, a witness for their specific testimony, it would be viewed as unethical; the Courts haven't appliled this ethical standard to law enforcement. As a result, non-violent drug offenders are being enlisted as soldiers in the war on drugs with promises of leniency, or even promises not to prosecute their offense. They are typically required to perform a number of "controlled buys" while wired for sound; many of the targets are dangerous individuals, and these "conscripted soldiers" are thus being asked to place their lives on the line. I view this practice as at least involuntary servitude.

Fri, 08/03/2007 - 3:18pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Their only role is to help create crime so that the stats go up.

Fri, 08/03/2007 - 7:40pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

These criminal acts by police need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Police need to know that they will go to jail, and receive a long jail sentence for their crimes, not just a smack on the hand.
These kind of terrorist acts by police have gone on for decades now. Its a sad state when when the police are the criminals, and repetely go unpunished.
I grew up around narcotics officers, and have seen what they are capable of. They will lie, cheat and steal. They do carry throw away guns , just in case the victim did not have a gun, that victim will have one at the crime scene.
Many of these officers live above their means , thru ill gotten gains. They continue to go unprosecuted for their crimes

Mon, 08/06/2007 - 1:25pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Since back in the late 60s I've been telling people that, because we give law enforcement authority over us and our communities, we must insist on a higher standard of behavior by members/employees of law enforcement (I feel the same is true of our elected officials, also). Because my influence is small, it has taken this long (and many, many, MANY letters, posts on BBS, emails and comments like this) for my concern to become widespread enough for these unconstitutional and unethical activities by law enforcement to actually begin to come under the scrutiny of people and legislators. I am glad to see that something is finally happening.

I've long said cops should be subjected regularly to psychological and (clandestine) real world tests to acertain they remain courteous and fair in their treatment of the populace, suspect or not, just because we give them authority doesn't mean we have given them the right to abuse that authority or us.

Mon, 08/06/2007 - 2:01pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The use of snitches to set up drug busts should be outlawed! The police are using children (and adults) who have been caught with drugs to do thier jobs for them without pay, without protection and without proper training. It's criminal to send a young person, who has no training in law enforcement, onto the streets to set up drug busts involving people and drugs that they otherwise may not have had any exposure to. If anyone were to find out that these people were setting them up they easily could be killed or worse.

When the police enter a house on a no-knock warrent, they are always so heavily armed you would think they were about to take out a small country (overkill), But, when they send thier slave labor pool (the snitches) out to do thier police work for them do you think they give them a weapon to protect thierselves with? Of course they don't. This practice should be outlawed immediatley. The police need to do thier own jobs for a change and let the poor fools that have been busted spend thier time working at paying jobs. After all they are soon to be raped and robbed of every penny they can get thier hands on when they start paying attorney fees, court costs, fines ect. WHAT A RACKET!

Mon, 08/06/2007 - 3:20pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Around 3pm on March 26, Michael C. Kelley, 62 of Shirley, answered his front door to find Van Buren County Sheriff’s Investigator Randy Murray, five deputies and one State Police Trooper with search warrant in hand. Allegedly, a ‘concerned citizen’ tipped-off law enforcement that Kelley was fostering an odious marijuana operation. [see: Gozarks, April 2007, front page, center column including news clipping from the Van Buren County Democrat reporting the arrest and photo of Kelley.]

Kelley sighed and let them in. Officers seized six young plants and a child’s wading pool with cloned cuttings, citing same as marijuana. Kelley was arrested for manufacturing.

Also confiscated was about an ounce of highly compressed ‘commercial’ pot that Kelley says came from the ‘concerned citizen’ whose indictment was ‘probable cause’ for the warrant. Thus Kelley’s attorney, Kent Tester, claims that Kelley’s interdiction was a perpetrated set-up.

To legally demonstrate this, Tester subpoenaed the suspect informant, one Daniel Watts, 29 of Shirley, to testify at Kelley’s pre-trial hearing and prove that Kelley’s case must by law be kicked on ‘fruit of the poisoned tree’ 4th Amendment grounds.

"This whole thing was orchestrated by the jilted boyfriend of my landlady’s daughter," Kelley asserted, referencing Shalom Weiss, 18, also of Shirley.

"She called it quits with Watts on March 22," Christine Beems, 58, Kelley’s landlady and mother of Weiss, explained. "And Watts immediately put her on notice that if she refused to move in with him he would make her life hell. Within 72 hours of his ultimatum, he showed up at Mr. Kelley’s house and the next day Mr. Kelley went to jail."

"A couple of days before Mr. Kelley was arrested Daniel Watts told me that if I wouldn’t be with him he’d make my life miserable by getting the cops involved," Weiss elaborated. "He said that he already had a search warrant in process, but was giving me ‘one last chance’. He said that if I agreed to move in with him he could stop it."

Weiss said she was dumbstruck, having no idea what Watts thinking or that he was planning vindictive action against the tenant who rents the house managed by Beems but legally owned by Weiss and three siblings.

"I thought he was going to send the cops to where we live and couldn’t imagine why. I knew we had done nothing wrong," Weiss said.

"In total shock" and wanting to get to the truth of the matter after Kelley’s arrest, Weiss covertly taped several telephone conversations with Watts.

"He admitted to me that he sold pot to Mr. Kelley and that he used family ties with local law enforcement to manipulate the raid on Mr. Kelley’s residence, all to get back at me," Weiss said.

On April 12, a No Contact Order, initiated by the Fairfield Bay Police after Watts repeatedly showed up at the young woman’s workplace threatening to ‘burn her house down with her whole family in it’ and stalking her and her younger sister (a minor), was issued against Watts on behalf of Weiss by the VBC DPA’s office on charges of terroistic threatening and harassment.

"It is clear to me from my personal knowledge of this man and in listening to the tapes that Watts wanted to make the point that he has an ‘in’ with local law enforcement," said Beems. "He wanted to drive it home that Shalom wasn’t going to do anything that displeased him, at least not without someone suffering some pain. Over and over on the tapes he demands that she marry him and insists that she will ‘owe him forever’. He is obviously a very sick person and yet it seems that he is ‘trusted and protected’ by those who are charged with enforcing the law," Beems alleged.

Beems’ assertion stems from the filing of a Motion to Quash Defendant’s Subpoena by Stephen Hawks, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney of the 20th Judicial District. If granted by the court, the motion would bar Kelley’s attorney from questioning the alleged informant on the witness stand.

"The State of Arkansas neither admits nor denies the possibility of the individual’s involvement in the above-styled case," stipulates Hawks, further pleading that the State of Arkansas is, according to various rules of criminal procedure and evidence "not required" to divulge the identity of a "confidential informant."

Tester, responding, calls on the court to enforce his subpoena of Watts because the witness "has material information regarding the Affidavit for Search Warrant" and further alleging that "the State is in possession of exculpatory evidence in the form of tape recorded telephone conversations recently delivered to them."

Tester also asserts that Watts had "motive to fabricate evidence and set-up the Defendant" and that "clearly his testimony and knowledge in this case are relevant."

"This dangerous creep is a manipulative liar," Kelley, who works as a dishwasher in Fairfield Bay and has amassed debt of nearly $15,000 for bond and attorney fees to date, summarized. "He was on a vendetta to hurt this girl because she refused to be extorted for sex. He brags that he has no problem lying to a judge and he makes it clear that he and others plotted this revenge. If he gets away with convicting me on this pack of lies he will continue to terrorize innocent young girls and do whatever else he pleases with impunity."

Kelley’s case is scheduled for a pre-trial hearing before Circuit Judge Mike Maggio in October. Watts, who entered a plea of ‘not guilty’ to the charges levied in the No Contact Order, stands trial in District Court on August 13. ~~~

Mon, 08/06/2007 - 6:40pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

If he has a job as a dishwasher how can he afford to make debts ?

Sat, 12/15/2007 - 2:58pm Permalink
notoky (not verified)

" a madman is one who has lost everything except reason"

as a small rural community resident, I have witnessesed and feel that I am currently under'snitch' watch. I am an occasional recreatioal user who is working hard to remain clean. This for personal NOT criminal reasons.
Local police use small time middle men or sellers to snitch for sentence expungement or reduction. These snitches 1- while working for law enforcement are continuing to use. 2- DEA and task force detectives work to provide product (drugs) to theses snitches to 'sell' to those persons who have been targeted. So they(snitches) can still and do abuse illegal substances ??? Backwards, discusting etc...
This type of 'law enforcement' accoimplishes nothing but a jail term for small time dealers and stiff fines for the county and's midevil in my opinion.
I also feel that law enforcement and hired officials should have to take random substance abuse tests. This may help irradicate this unethical form of criminal procecution.

Sat, 09/20/2008 - 10:06am Permalink

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