Criminal snitches are a pervasive feature of the justice system that the public rarely sees. Every year thousands of offenders offer information to the government on street corners, in the back of police cruisers, in jails, and in courthouse offices. In exchange for the information, police and prosecutors tolerate those informants' crimes. Sometimes the informant avoids arrest altogether, in other cases, prosecutors reward cooperating defendants by filing lesser charges or seeking reduced sentences. Unlike traditional plea bargains, these deals often take place off the record, even as the information they generate is used to support warrants, arrests, and convictions.
The use of criminal informants is most common in drug enforcement, which relies on snitching at every stage of the legal process, from investigations to arrests to plea bargaining to sentencing. Since drug cases constitute about one-third of all state and federal dockets, informants are critical to the day-to-day operation of the justice system. But the snitching model is not limited to the war on drugs. It has spread to street crime, white collar crime, terrorism, and Internet investigations.
In short, the demand for helpful evidence has given rise to a massive underground marketplace in which government officials and suspects negotiate over criminal liability. These deals take place without the usual rules of record keeping, procedure, court oversight, and sometimes even defense counsel. All too often, the courts and the public never learn what offenses were committed or what deals were struck.
Informants can be powerful crime-fighting tools, providing inside information about gangs, drug distribution, organized crime, corporate fraud, and political corruption. But the evidence offered by informants is notoriously unreliable. According to a 2004 study by researchers at Northwestern University Law School, more than 45 percent of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases were due to false informant testimony, making snitches "the leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital cases."
A particularly pernicious form of snitching has taken root in prisons and jails. Jailhouse informants produce so many wrongful convictions that several states have concluded they can no longer be used without more stringent controls. The use of in-custody informants nevertheless remains widespread. The first public glimpse of the phenomenon was provided by the Los Angeles Grand Jury Report of 1990, which exposed a rampant culture of exchange and fabrication in the Los Angeles County Jail during the 1970s and '80s. …