Two criminal trials this month were disrupted by an article of clothing.
A witness called to testify against three men on trial for conspiring to kill him was ejected from Allegheny County Common Pleas Court because he came in wearing a T-shirt that said "Stop Snitchin." Without his testimony, prosecutors were forced to withdraw charges against the three defendants.
The following day, during the sentencing phase of a federal drug case, an assistant U.S. Attorney paused to show the judge two T-shirts vilifying witnesses who gave prosecutors information about a cocaine kingpin.
One shirt had a photograph of a witness, an admitted drug dealer, who eventually won a reduced sentence for cooperating with authorities. Above his image and a photo of another cooperating witness were the words "No snitching allowed." On the opposite side, it read "Niggas Just Looking For a Deal" and, once again, "Stop Snitchin."
The back-to-back incidents were no coincidence. The shirts belong to an urban fashion trend that hit Boston and Baltimore about a year ago and is now taking hold on the streets of Pittsburgh.
Vendors at stores Downtown said they have been selling "Stop Snitchin" shirts for months. Variations in stock this week include a smiley face with a zipper for a mouth and an octagonal "Stop Snitchin" stop sign that's been riddled with bullets.
Salespeople at Mo Gear on Forbes Avenue and Sneaker Villa on Wood Street said the "Stop Snitchin" shirt may have started as a bold counterculture statement but now it's nothing more than a harmless novelty item that mostly appeals to school kids.
Whether or not it's the right thing to do, tattling on your sister and telling on your friends has always been unhip.
Going to police with information about a buddy who's breaking the law is taboo in gang culture and it almost implicitly means you're asking for retribution, according to police and gang experts.
But since the War on Drugs in the 1980s, law enforcement officials have relied more heavily on informants in their sting operations, said Alexandra Natapoff, an associate criminal law professor at Loyola Law School who published a University of Cincinnati Law Review article on the phenomenon. She said sentencing laws have pushed more people to snitch to save themselves from spending years behind bars.
With mandatory sentences attached to drug crimes, there are more incentives for low-level players to snitch on the top dogs.
Informants who help prosecutors significantly can sometimes meet a standard called "substantial assistance" and qualify for significantly shorter sentences.
Garry P. Smith, 47, of Hazelwood, the man sentenced in federal court here this month -- and pictured on the T-shirt -- testified despite the anti-snitching shirts people were wearing around his neighborhood and despite a reputed $100,000 bounty on his head. Because of his cooperation, Mr. Smith got his sentence cut from 20 years to seven.
Witnesses like Mr. Smith are critical to getting convictions in big cases.
According to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 40 percent of drug trafficking prosecutions in which defendants got a sentence of 10 years or more involved "substantial assistance to authorities" from informants.
Dr. Natapoff found that the pressure to become an informant has a disproportionate effect on the black community, because one in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are under court supervision at any time. In her article, she estimated that more than a quarter of black men in poor communities are under pressure to inform on their peers.
"Snitching becomes a fact of life," she said. "At every barbecue, at every holiday party, someone is under law enforcement pressure to snitch. That in my mind is a destructive public policy."
The Stop Snitching movement took root in the wake of those prosecutions.
A handful of rap stars, like Young Jeezy, helped spread the message with lyrics that shunned the idea of turning on your fellow gangstas. Rapper Jim Jones' video was banned in Canada because people in the video were donning the now-famous T-shirts. Carmelo Anthony of professional basketball's Denver Nuggets appeared in "Stop Snitchin," an underground documentary for sale on DVD that profiled drug dealers in his hometown of Baltimore talking about the dangers of "ratting" on people.
The managers at Mo Gear and Sneaker Villa predicted the shirts will be "in" for another month. Then, like everything else, people will get tired of them.
Also visit our "Informants: Resources for a Snitch Culture" section.
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