Skip to main content

The Inside Dope on Snitching

A law professor explains how to keep criminal informants from duping prosecutors, police and the rest of us.

In Chicago during the late 1980s, the U.S. attorney was prosecuting a ruthless, religiously inspired gang called the El Rukns. Federal prosecutors were so dependent on incarcerated gang leaders to make their case that six informants were permitted to make a hedonistic mockery of the criminal justice system. Henry Leon Harris was one of several who had sex with a visiting wife or girlfriend in the U.S. Attorney's offices — while guarded by Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents. Harry Evans used heroin delivered by his mother, but wasn't penalized when he failed a drug test. Other snitches received money, beer and cigarettes or stole confidential prosecution documents. A prosecution paralegal engaged in phone sex with Eugene Hunter, a confessed murderer, and one informant called his supplier from a prison phone to complain about receiving low-quality cocaine. For a time, prosecutors covered it all up, but eventually dozens of verdicts were overturned.

The details of the El Rukn case may be extraordinary, but the gist of the story isn't. All too often, prosecutors aid and abet the crimes of their informants. And that's just one disheartening outcome of American law enforcement's bungled dealings with snitches. The use of criminal informants leaves innocents behind bars, puts informants at mortal risk, renders justice opaque and actually leads to more crimes. In Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice, Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, describes the shortcomings of how cops and prosecutors employ snitches and offers ideas for reform.


To Natapoff, the secretive, sloppy, unaccountable use of snitches ranks among the chief flaws of America's notoriously fallible criminal justice system. Questionable actions begin during the recruitment process, when police flip alleged criminals into informants without even charging them and, crucially, without a lawyer present. Even after counsel shows up, all incentives favor a deal that involves an agreement to snitch. The government ignores or reduces potential sentences, trading charges for information. The higher a defendant resides within a criminal organization, the more leverage he has and the more lenient a prosecutor might be, violating the "worse the crime, worse the punishment" principle of blind justice. Such practices have become so endemic, Natapoff argues, that decision-makers are desensitized to the profound compromises they're making with criminals, including cold-blooded killers.

As a law enforcement handler deepens his relationship with a snitch, he becomes reliant on the informant and sometimes bends the rules. Handlers may grant informants power over the direction of investigations or personally intervene when a snitch is at risk of jail time for unrelated crimes. One active informant in San Francisco sold AK-47s that killed a cop; others participated in the murder of civil rights workers and worked as professional hit men for years at a time — while under law enforcement supervision. The Department of Justice estimates that 10 percent of the FBI informant pool has engaged in unauthorized crimes, despite government knowledge.

Cops frequently use informants to gather incriminating information, skirting the need for warrants or avoiding privacy laws by having informants record investigative targets, sometimes in their own homes. Investigators take advantage of unsophisticated defendants, flinging them into perilous circumstances to snare bigger criminal fish. Last year, as ABC News reported, 23-year-old college graduate Rachel Hoffman was caught with a small amount of drugs. Without informing her lawyer or family, investigators employed Hoffman as part of a guns-and-drugs sting operation. The targets of the sting killed her.


Even though the use of informants is widespread — the feds gave $100 million to snitches in one recent year — their reliability is dubious. Many defendants, desperate to give up information in exchange for reduced sentences, provide cops with bogus leads. This results in the prosecution of innocents, many of whom plead guilty (out of fear) to crimes they did not commit. Those who fight such charges don't fare well: Nearly half of wrongful capital convictions can be traced to false testimony from informants, according to one Northwestern University study.

The troubling results of snitching wreak havoc in many communities, especially low-income black and Latino neighborhoods. Because snitches can tell investigators only about what and whom they know, the creation of a few local criminal informants may cascade into a series of busts, charges and new snitches. In some neighborhoods, Natapoff estimates, nearly two-thirds of young black men are informants — part of the reason behind an excessive drug-related incarceration rate among people of color. Snitching also begets community mistrust, leading to more violence. In Natapoff's revisionist view, the urban "stop snitching" movement represents a complex communal attempt to deal with that fallout of the phenomenon — not, as depicted by most media outlets, a witness-intimidation campaign.

White-collar informants benefit from advantages: skilled lawyers and target letters that serve as warnings of pending indictments. Yet the government's work with high-class snitches incorporates many of the same mistakes as its street-level work, from leniency in sentencing to close personal ties between agents and informants.

The use of snitches is accompanied by a stunning lack of transparency. A criminal informant agreement may be a "clandestine, black market version" of justice, in which cops negotiate their own plea bargain and leave no paper trail. State and local governments often have few rules regarding informants, with decisions made at the unsupervised discretion of police and prosecutors who fail to record key facts about snitches for fear they will appear in the discovery process when a case comes to trial. Natapoff believes that snitching, which drives legal decisions into the shadows, represents a retreat from the core purposes of law enforcement: examining culpability and condemning crimes in public.

The author doesn't advocate the wholesale eradication of informants from criminal prosecution. She's well aware that some cases — particularly in the terrorism arena — just can't be built without informants, and some horse-trading is necessary to induce cooperation. She does, however, offer a convincing prescription for snitching reform. Much of it involves beefing up oversight and regulation, increasing police accountability on informant practices and improving data collection and transparency in regard to that data by investigators and prosecutors.

Other ideas seem less practical, given that law-and-order officials in both major political parties dominate state legislatures. For example, Natapoff would require law enforcement handlers to report all crimes perpetrated by their informants, and she supports law professor George Harris' idea of publicly funded "defense informants" to counterbalance testimony by prosecution witnesses. Actually, though, many of her proposals that seem radical have already become law in some states, including informant reliability hearings (Illinois), the requirement of corroboration for informant testimony (Texas) and the provision of legal counsel for uncharged suspects considering cooperation (Florida).

Natapoff's broad arguments are weakened by an overreliance on quotes from unspecified sources (she does provide references in endnotes), and a handful of chapters that read more like brief scholarly legal manuals than sections of a book aimed at a general audience. She also never quite untangles the inherent contradictions of an informant system in which snitches have both too much and not enough power over cops and prosecutors.

Yet this book arrives in an era of government reports decrying all-too-frequent miscarriages of justice and of conservative governors around the country putting moratoria on the death penalty. Officials seem willing to institute substantial changes to the legal system if doing so keeps the right criminals behind bars and the innocent living free, productive lives.

The El Rukn cooperators, like so many informants before and since, are more than mere tattletales who gave up on their criminal buddies. In flouting the law with such impudence after cutting deals, they shook the metaphorical hand of Lady Justice, lifted her blindfold and spat in her eyes. So, too, did their handlers in the Northern District of Illinois' U.S. Attorney's Office, who broke numerous laws in the name of justice for El Rukn's victims.

What happened in Chicago, however, is the result not just of despicable individuals but, Natapoff suggests, of a systemic problem in America's legal system, which too often uses some lawbreakers to prosecute other lawbreakers. Though she doesn't deign to offer a bulletproof plan to fix the situation, Natapoff does point law enforcers toward a way out of the vicious snitching cycle. If more of them chose that path, we'd all be better off.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.