What Is A “Snitch”? It Depends On Whom You Ask

By John Chase

Snitching is in the news lately, widely misunderstood. The traditional meaning, obvious in the 1999 PBS Frontline special “Snitch“, is a person under the thumb of prosecutors who testifies against others in drug conspiracy cases, in the hope of leniency. As the drug war escalated, a “stop snitchin” movement evolved, and now “snitch” is being spun by unknown parties to say the minority community is becoming afraid to report/testify on crime in general.

The spin notched upward on April 22nd with Anderson Cooper’s CBS 60 Minutes segment “Stop Snitchin“. On the unspun side is Edrea Davis, author of SnitchCraft.(1) Ms. Davis also wrote “Propaganda, Pimping Or Sloppy Journalism?” about the 60 Minutes article, excerpts as follows:(2)

“…. For the past few months mainstream media has hyped the “Stop Snitchin” slogan, giving it a life-and definition-of its own. A story on CBS News’ 60 Minutes presented a one-dimensional view of snitching that appears to be part of an ongoing propaganda campaign designed to hold hip-hop culture accountable for the dysfunctional criminal justice system, and divert the public’s attention from the real problems in America.

“In the black community it is commonly understood that a snitch is a crafty criminal who negotiates a deal for himself by telling on others. Since the days of slavery, providing information to authorities to gain favor has been viewed negatively.

“I was able to find the meaning of snitching in less than ten clicks of my mouse, so I think it’s safe to assume that 60 Minutes, a national news program with a budget and research staff, is aware of the nature and definition of snitching and had no interest in being fair and accurate.

“But, according to the 60 Minutes story, witnesses and concerned citizens are now considered snitches. The report indicated that people of all ages in the black community, even children, are abiding by this so-called code-of-silence out of fear of retaliation.

“While it is true that blacks and other minorities have a history of strained relationships with the police, concerned citizens routinely complain about crack houses, slow response times and a lack of police patrols in inner-city neighborhoods. Black people also serve as witnesses and jurors.

“Since I’m from the “P-Funk” era, I went to allhiphop.com, thuglifearmy.com and eurweb.com to see what the hip-hop generation had to say. Amazingly, about 85% of the posts I read supported the classic definition of snitching. I listened to Chamillionaire’s song “No Snitchin.” The rapper rhymes about a criminal who “was looking at 30 but only did 10.” The song goes on: “streets know the deals you made with the pen.”

“A few clicks later I was on sohh.com watching an interview with rapper, actor and one of the pioneers of hip-hop, Ice-T. He said, “Snitching is not telling on somebody doing something wrong in the ‘hood. It’s when you and your partner are involved in a crime and get caught and you tell on your partner. That’s snitching.”

“A quick look at pertinent information absent from the story is further evidence that it was propaganda. For instance, 60 Minutes neglected to mention that there was honor among thieves long before hip-hop. Dishonest elected officials, corporate executives, and even the “Boys in Blue” have adhered to a don’t snitch mantra over the years. …..

“How can any responsible journalist do a story on how black people relate to the police without mentioning the pandemic of police brutality and misconduct cases across the country? With the international media attention surrounding the snitch involved in the police killing of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, how can they produce a story on snitching without mentioning problems related to dishonest snitches?…”

“Stop snitchin'” begs for an explanation of how it came to be. Anyone who watched the Frontline special “Snitch” knows.(3) It began with legislation enacted just before the 1986 election when Democrats tried to out-tough Republicans, and again just before the 1988 election. The 1986 law established mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, except that the mandatories could be waived if the defendant provided “substantial assistance” to the prosecution. The prisons began to fill. But it was drug conspiracy law, added in 1988, that did the work. Drug Conspiracy law allows conviction with no evidence except the word of an informant. It’s been 20 years.

After a number of high profile drug conspiracy cases were reported in the ten part series, “Win-at-all-Costs“, by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in late 1998,(4) prosecutors began to focus on low level dealers and women, who both lacked the resources to resist. Drug prosecutions rely so often on “substantial assistance” that it rarely makes the news. The vast majority end in plea bargains even if the accused has resources to retain an attorney. Defendants are played off against each other, often with no interest in the truth. In cases of “diverted” pharmaceuticals, for example, patients are threatened, pressured to turn on their doctors, but it can work the other way.

Richard Paey, a Hudson pain patient sentenced to 25 years for “trafficking”, told reporter [New York Times] John Tierney that prosecutors, “…said if you’re willing to testify against your doctor it would go a long way to having these charges go away.” According to Tierney, “Paey refused, and then found himself facing hostile testimony from the doctor, who said he had not authorized the contested prescriptions.”(5)

Bernie McCabe, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney, says his prosecutors rarely go to trial with just the word of a snitch because it is hard to win, but it’s different if there are multiple snitches, as in the recent Michael Vick dog fighting case. When questioned about the impact of the “Stop Snitchin” movement, he said he wasn’t aware of any. Cecelia Bareda of Sheriff Jim Coats’ office agreed, andemphasized the importance of a strong relationship between citizens and police.

Reporting crime and testifying both depend on that good relationship, and some legal experts believe it is jeopardized by confidential informants. According to Alexandra Natapoff, a Loyola Law School professor, speaking to the panel at a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on July 19th, “It’s an historical problem in this country, it’s not reducible to the problem of informing or snitching or “stop snitchin”, 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,” and it “..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.”(6)

While many informants are simply naive drug buyers sent out after arrest to sell drugs to other naive buyers, a few excel at it. Denis DeVlaming, a local defense attorney, tells of a client whose forte while in prison was to try for a sentence reduction by getting bunked near prisoners on whom prosecutors needed information. The client was actually on Florida’s witness list for a time.

DeVlaming’s experience tells him that rewarded testimony is inherently unreliable. The “Stop Snitchin” movement is a reaction to the drug war’s system of paid informants and naïve snitches, and it now threatens to spread to reporting/testifying on other offenses.(7) As a remedy, John Conyers’ House Judicial Committee will write federal legislation to rein in the use of such rewarded testimony. It remains to be seen whether Florida will follow the federal lead.

Footnotes/Links:

1. http://www.snitchcraft.com

2. http://www.november.org/Snitch

3. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/snitch

4. http://www.post-gazette.com/win

5. http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v06/n133/a04.html

6. http://judiciary.house.gov/oversight.aspx?ID=356

7. http://www.whosarat.com

Civil Liberties In Pinellas (CLIP) is a publication of the Pinellas County, Florida American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)