Snitching, For Fun and Profit

Necessity is the mother parent of invention, and so a new cottage industry is born. What’s surprising isn’t that it happened. When there is money to be made, someone eventually comes forward to make it. What’s surprising is that it took as long as it did.  Via Brad Heath at USA Today :

For a fee, Watkins and his associates on the outside sold them information about other criminals that they could turn around and offer up to federal agents in hopes of shaving years off their prison sentences. They were paying for information, but what they were really trying to buy was freedom.

“I didn’t feel as though any laws were being broken,” Watkins wrote in a 2008 letter to prosecutors. “I really thought I was helping out law enforcement.”

That pay-to-snitch enterprise – documented in thousands of pages of court records, interviews and a stack of Watkins’ own letters – remains almost entirely unknown outside Atlanta’s towering federal courthouse, where investigators are still trying to determine whether any criminal cases were compromised. It offers a rare glimpse inside a vast and almost always secret part of the federal criminal justice system in which prosecutors routinely use the promise of reduced prison time to reward prisoners who help federal agents build cases against other criminals.

Were laws broken? The question is only asked after the scheme goes public, because only then does anybody care whether something that emits a bad stink was wrong. Ironically, the scheme played into the hands of law enforcement’s crack investigators, who only smelled sweet busts.  After all, the ability to copy down the name and address offered by a snitch is what agents refer to as “investigation.” Once they smell their first successful take-down, the scent becomes intoxicating.

The snitch method of defense grew out of the Sentencing Guidelines, and during the 1990s, became the predominant method of avoiding the absurdly draconian prison sentences required by the grid. When defendants had no one to give up, substituted cooperation came into being, where someone on the outside would snitch or work a case on behalf of an arrested defendant. It was never popular with prosecutors though, as it rewarded a defendant for something he didn’t do and presented a disconnect when it came time to take a case to trial.  Many offices eventually refused to allow substituted cooperation.

According to Heath, 48,895 federal convicts, or one in eight, had their prison sentences reduced by snitching over the past five years. Let’s face it, neither the bonds of friendship nor even family ties are strong enough for some defendants to take a ten year hit.  There is no honor among thieves, or drug dealers, money launderers or fraudsters. Hey, you can always make new friends, right?

But Watkins took the battle in a new direction, selling names to desperate defendants who had no one to give up. What Heath’s number doesn’t reflect is the number of defendants who want to snitch, are desperate to snitch, but just don’t have anything good enough to give.  Bear in mind, if a defendant is in on a ten kilo sale, giving up the guy selling dime bags isn’t going to do him much good. He needs to give up somebody the feds want badly enough to cut him a break.

As for the lawfulness of Watkins’ business, there really isn’t any doubt.

Prosecutors have said they were troubled that informants were paying for some of the secrets they passed on to federal agents. Judges are outraged. But the inmates who operated the schemes have repeatedly alleged that agents knew all along what they were up to, and sometimes even gave them the information they sold. Prosecutors told a judge in October that an investigation found those accusations were false. Still, court records show, agents kept interviewing at least one of Watkins’ customers even after the FBI learned of the scheme.

As part of the opening spiel at every proffer session, the assistant tells the Queen for a Day that if he doesn’t tell the truth, he won’t be accepted as a snitch and may be prosecuted under §1001. By the truth, he means good dirt. Truth is such a relative term.  So when a convict claims to possess personal knowledge about a crime, but leaves out the part about the tens of thousand he paid Watkins or the fact that he doesn’t actually have a clue about the person he’s ratting out, it’s just a minor detail. A sin of omission. Barely a sin at all, when the dirt is good enough to capture the government’s interest.

But why blame Watkins, who is merely showing the entrepreneurial spirit that made America great? He saw a need and filled it. That’s the American way. The beef, if any, is with an incentive system that rewards people for giving up others, whether it’s true or not. The incentive system promotes turning minor criminals into drug lords, manufacturing lies that will make value of the snitch’s information sufficiently enticing to the government to cut a sentence in half, or maybe more. After all, if Sammy “The Bull” can make murders disappear with the right information, certainly a run of the mill drug dealer shouldn’t be a problem.

The government, with the help of the judiciary, has made snitching an art when it comes to overcoming any potential aversion a juror may have to it. The inherent reasonable doubt over allegations provided by a person who has an enormous incentive to lie is blunted by prosecutors who harp on how a convict must tell the truth or lose any potential benefit.  Judges instruct juries with carefully crafted words to explain that snitches aren’t unreliable, but a critical part of the system that prevents their wives from being raped.  Without them, the judge solemnly intones, our streets would be overrun by crime. Thank God for snitches.

So why not Watkins? Is his snitch-for-hire information any less reliable than the stuff guys make up in the quiet of their prison cells?  In fact, he may well be more reliable, for there is no better marketing for a service than customer satisfaction, and so he’s got a strong incentive to sell only the highest quality information. 

And on the law enforcement side, there is no incentive to do anything to impede the flow of names and addresses for the next day’s bust.  After all, how would they possibly win awards for their brilliant investigative techniques if somebody doesn’t feed them every detail?  All they have to do is write it down on a pad correctly, which my empirical research shows happens 57% of the time, and they get medal and a promotion.

Of course, once the government and courts come up with an artful explanation for the jury about why pay-to-snitch is really a valued part of our legal system, then competition will follow and the marketing wars will start.  The only problem after that will be scarce resources, making sure there is enough crime to snitch about, which will give rise to the next cottage industry: getting children to become criminals so that there is no shortage of people to snitch about.

The business of America is business, and there is no reason why snitching should be any different.

5 thoughts on “Snitching, For Fun and Profit

  1. Alex Bunin

    I am a big fan of Brad Heath. He put together a database of federal cases where there was a judicial finding of prosecutorial misconduct. He then had me and some law professors review the cases for a multi-part article in USA Today. He is thorough.

  2. Anonymous

    “if a defendant is in on a ten kilo sale, giving up the guy selling dime bags isn’t going to do him much good. He needs to give up somebody the feds want badly enough to cut him a break.”

    Says who? The D can simply tell LEO that a Mark is a big dealer – perhaps who he got his 10 kilos from, then help set up the Mark, and LEO won’t know or will pretend not to know it’s all a lie.
    At least that’s how it used to work down in Mississippi with the MBNarcotics – and I say this based on personal knowledge – including info from a well-known CD lawyer in Hinds county.

    Requiring LEO to attest they know the info about Mark is true would be a joke at the MBN office.

    Our criminal justice system is corrupt beyond repair and in my opinion, only
    the CD bar and the judiciary can lead the way to scrapping it and starting over, but anyone who thinks that’s likely to happen is living in la la land.

    I know at least one blog whose owner is testing the elimination of CAPTCHA.

  3. SHG

    Sorry to harsh your paranoia, but you missed the point. If Mark is a dig dealer, then he’s someone they want. If the snitch is making it up, then they find nothing and the snitch gets no credit. There still has to be something there for it to benefit the snitch.

    By the way, “personal knowledge” of somebody who calls himself anonymous doesn’t count for much.

  4. Anonymous

    Sorry you must think I’m paranoid, for
    simply telling the truth, but I apologize for not realizing I’d need to make it more clear that by setting up Mark, I mean completely so. With either fake drugs or real drugs, so that the LEO perps find the drugs and bust Mark –
    who probably won’t be able to continue the cycle.

    Thems the facts in the case I mentioned.

  5. SHG

    Ah, so what you meant to say, aside from the additional paranoia nonsense, is that they can also frame someone. Yes, they can. See how easy that is to explain? Sorry for not specifically mentioning your personal issue.

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