Book Review. . . Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice by Alexandra Natapoff

This weekend I finished reading Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice by Alexandra Natapoff.  I came across this book while preparing for a Capital Murder Trial in Benton County earlier this summer.  The state intended to introduce several jailhouse informants to testify against my client.  We searched all over the US for the preeminent expert on Snitches / Jailhouse informants and ultimately we were led to Professor Alexandra Natapof of Loyola University.  Ultimately the case pled and we did not need Professor Natapoff to testify, but I ordered her book anyway.

The book is a fantastic read.  Natapoff writes that the central defining characteristic of snitching is the deal between the government and a suspect.  In that deal, the government ignores or reduces the suspects potential criminal liability in exchange for information.

Natapoff makes the analogy that while plea bargaining is horse trading where criminal defense lawyers and prosecutors cut backroom deals to sort their cases out, snitching is an even more clandestine and black market version of this process.   Furthermore it usually happens off the record without a paper trail.

Natapoff writes that snitching practices represent a departure from core purposes of criminal law such as evaluating individual moral culpability and publicly condemning crime.  Instead they elevate other values such as an offender’s immediate usefulness to ongoing investigations.

In her book Natapoff closely examines the anatomy of an informant deal, examining the police and the prosecutors role, as well as the criminal defense lawyers role.   One of the most compelling things about the book was how Natapoff drew from a great depth of resources, often quoting other authors, professors, and judges.

“The first attempt to recruit the individual occurs during the post arrest interview, commonly referred to as interrogation.  The interview occurs shortly after the arrest.  The defendant is unnerved, confused, friegntened, angry, or experiencing a combination of these emotions.  Of greatest importance to the agent, however, is that the individual is not yet represented by counsel.  This is the period when most defendant informants are recruited.”  Quoting Agent Fitzgerald, author of Informants and Undercover Investigations.

Natapoff also quotes Professor Daniel Richman, author of Cooperating Clients, on the topic of the value of criminal defense lawyers “Her legal knowledge and experience will help the defendant assess the likely outcome of a trial, the value of his information, the nature of both parties’ obligations under a cooperation agreement, the likelihood of a sentencing discount, and other such factors.  Even more importantly, as a repeat player in the market where the government buys information, the defense lawyer helps guarantee that the government will meet its obligations in good faith.”

Natapoff points out the disparity between street crimes and white collar crimes specifically noting that white collar defendants are more likely to be represented by a criminal defense attorney.   While street crime suspects are often signed up as informants before they are even made aware of their right to counsel, white collar defendants are often sent a “target letter” informing them of an ongoing investigation against them and giving him/her opportunity to seek advice from a lawyer.

Natapoff’s book focus on the most common informant reward: lenience for crimes.  Natapoff cites specific examples of defendants being shown lenience drawing from news articles and court cases.  The book discusses the wide range of implications of informant practices.  “Good informant, good case.  Bad informant, bad case.  No informant, no case.”  – old law enforcement saying

This book was a fantastic weekend read and I highly recommend it to anyone, particularly any criminal defense lawyer, who is interested in the American system of using criminal informants to catch other criminals.