Sunday, December 16, 2012

Beware the Snitch!

The world “snitch” is an old synonym for “tattletale.” Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary dates its usage to 1785.

In a legal context, however, it’s a relatively recent word. It isn’t even in the Fifth Edition of the widely used Black’s Law Dictionary, published in 1979. In that edition, only a generation old, the alphabetical listings jump from “smut” to “so” without an intervening snitch.

In the 1980s, however, the word came into much wider usage. This was principally because as America’s ill-fated “War on Drugs” escalated unimaginably, the use of informers to find (or fabricate) evidence against drug offenders became widespread. Someone who played the role of informer, usually in return for a reduction in his or her own sentence, was and is known as a snitch.

PBS explored the problem in considerable depth in a 1999 documentary called simply Snitch. The program also explored the unfairness of many mandatory minimum penalties in drug cases.

Producer Ofra Bikel’s interest in the issue was galvanized after hearing the story of an 18-year-old young man who was set up by someone he thought was a good friend. When the 18-year-old got some LSD for this “friend,” it turned out that the person was in cahoots with federal drug enforcement agents — and desperate to get a break on his own drug sentence.

To Bikel, it seemed crazy that this 18-year old with no previous convictions should suddenly be sent away for a minimum of 10 years on evidence supplied by a snitch. After all, a snitch has a tangible incentive to lie in order to catch a break from prosecutors in his or her own case.

I saw Snitch in 1999, when I was living in Des Moines and working for a special task force created by the Iowa Legislature to review criminal sentencing policy. But I hadn’t thought about it for years — until I saw the current USA Today article on snitches in the federal justice system.

The USA Today piece examines how informers in federal cases essentially buy reductions in their sentences by providing information to prosecutors about other defendants. According to USA Today, one in eight federal prisoners is engaged in this type of pay-to-snitch venture.

To be sure, in this context “pay” doesn’t mean money changing hands. But a reduction in a prison sentence for someone looking for leniency in his or her own case is definitely a powerful incentive to cooperate with authorities. And it can easily cross the line into telling them what they want to hear, regardless of the truth.

How in the world Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling came to use the word “snitch” to refer to a peculiarly elusive ball in the game of Quidditch, I do not know. Interestingly, though, in Quidditch, the snitch is pursued by two players, one on each side, who are called Seekers.


These Seekers are not searching for truth; they simply want the snitch. Analogizing to an adversarial criminal justice system, the problem is that each side has such an incentive to cherry-pick the truth. Instead of seeking the truth of the matter, prosecutors too often try to use snitches to notch another “win” in the competitive games they play.

At stake in those games is much more than victory in a Quidditch match. People’s liberty is on the line, with the prospect of spending years behind bars because a snitch made up or embellished a story about them, just to stave the snitch’s own skin.

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