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August 3, 2007 - Drug War Chronicle (US)

Snitching in the Spotlight:

House Committee Holds Hearing on Informant Abuses

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.

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.

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 at:

Another Congress Forgets Prisoners, Reform

By Fran Koontz and Ray Koontz, Special To The Register, August 25, 2007

With our son in prison, we held out hope that a Democratic Congress would usher in a return to reason and would reform federal prison sentencing.

Eight months later, nothing has happened. Drug addicts and mentally ill people continue to be incarcerated, and tax dollars continue to be wasted.

We had hoped to see Congress reinstate parole in the federal prison system and outlaw mandatory minimum sentences, which take discretion away from judges. We had hoped to see the release of nonviolent offenders who had served more than 10 years and are over age 45.

Beyond wasting money, continuing to warehouse them past that age is just plain criminal.

Forgotten in all of this, of course, are the prisoners, rotting away at taxpayer expense. They work at less than slave wages, with no hope of parole and no treatment for their mental illnesses or addiction.

Here's a glimpse at a rare visit:

They stare out through bars as their families drive into the parking lot. We wave toward the window that we know to be theirs, smiling through our tears. We fill out forms and take off our shoes and belts. Rings and watches go through metal detectors.

We're not allowed to wear toeless shoes, sleeveless blouses or jackets past a certain date, even though it's chilly in the visitors room. We can't carry purses, only clear plastic, with $20. Everyone runs for the vending machines. We'll be here six or eight hours, and that's the only food available.

We wait, nervous, anxious for our son to come through the door from the cell area. There he is, smiling, hurrying toward us, arms outstretched for our far-too-seldom hugs and kisses. That's all we're allowed.

We long to hold him, touch him, make sure he's still whole, body and spirit. We're not allowed. Only one hello hug and kiss, and one in saying goodbye.

We talk about everything and nothing. He catches up on family doings. He longs to attend the Koontz family picnic, play ball with cousins, visit with aunts, see all the new "little ones" born in the past 11 years.

Unless Congress acts to remember our forgotten sons and daughters, we won't live to see our son at our table again.

Prison building is a growth industry in the United States today. Once a prison is built, it's a capital investment and must be filled. The jobs, once created, must be sustained for those working them. Small towns compete for "prison industries," while we outsource real manufacturing jobs overseas.

Sons and daughters of the working class fill these prisons, kids who drank too much and used illegal drugs, hurting themselves and those who loved them. Forty-five percent of federal prisoners suffer from mental illness, according to the most recent Department of Justice data.

Fifty percent reported using illegal drugs in the month before their offense, but less than half of those classified as drug dependent or abusing took part in any drug treatment since their admission to prison, the department reported.

These mentally ill people and drug abusers have been forgotten by lawmakers who get elected on "tough on crime" platforms.

Many people say, "Well, they broke the law." Yes, and they destroyed themselves and their families in the doing. Should taxpayers spend millions each year "protecting" themselves from people who themselves need protection - but only from themselves and their illnesses?

Our kids are sick. Let's stop locking them away. Contact your representatives in Congress to demand changes in federal prison laws. Are representatives meeting the needs of their constituents and these forgotten prisoners, or are they meeting the needs of special interests?

At election time, we should not forget those who let this terrible travesty of justice continue.

Now, the presidential hopefuls are coming to town, promising job protection, health care and education. Some want to protect the "sanctity" of the unborn while ignoring the lives of those already here.

The poor, jobless, homeless, mentally ill, addicted and imprisoned are all ignored. Oh well, they won't vote anyway.

The candidates have to raise big bucks to buy TV time to keep K Street vendors as friends. Yet, after November 2008, the prisoners, our loved ones, will be forgotten again for another four years.

Please let our son come home.

Ray and Fran Koontz live in Des Moines. Their son, John, 51, is serving his 11th year in federal prison on drug and weapons charges. He was sentenced to 25 years. There is no parole in the federal system, and prisoners must serve 85 percent of their sentences. Unless the laws are changed, John Koontz will be 62 when he's released.

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