This month, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Orange County, California, district attorney and sheriff, the latest development in the county’s ongoing “snitch scandal.” For at least a decade, as part of a large-scale, meticulously organized program, deputies would plant informants to secretly gather incriminating information about defendants in the jail. When the snitches testified against those defendants, they didn’t reveal that law enforcement had orchestrated the encounters.
Prosecutors commonly use informants to secure convictions, swapping leniency for “substantial assistance.” Insiders with information to barter can be particularly crucial in cases of organized crime or sophisticated drug operations. (It wasn’t until Sammy ‘The Bull’ Gravano snitched that the feds finally nabbed John Gotti, for example.) It is common for prosecutors to bring the toughest possible charges against a potential informant as a lever to get cooperation.
But snitches who gather intelligence on jailhouse neighbors — often complete strangers — should be treated with particular skepticism, courts have said: they have “a tremendous incentive” to say whatever prosecutors want to hear, says Boston College Law Professor Robert Bloom, author of “Ratting: The Use and Abuse of Informants in the American Justice System.”
Below, test your knowledge of how jailhouse snitching works — and doesn’t work — around the country.