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Frankenstein's Monster and Maple Trees: the Latest Snitch Scandals

Anjuli Verma,
Drug Law Reform Project
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February 21, 2008

If fair and effective drug policing were New Year’s Resolutions, we’d have already fallen off the wagon. Unfortunately, the first few months of 2008 have ushered in a steady parade of informant-related scandals that could have been averted if key safeguards and regulations were in place. We can only hope that with state legislative sessions moving into full-swing and renewed Congressional attention to critical civil liberties and civil rights issues, we will see policymakers start to take seriously the desperate need for reforms to our nation’s unchecked and unregulated informant system.

Check out the worst of what’s been going down lately:

  • An internal New York City Police Department investigation has resulted in the arrest of two police officers who are being charged with “stealing $40 and two bags of crack seized from a junkie – and then giving it back to him in exchange for information.” According to the internal investigation report, the officers registered only 17 bags of cocaine obtained during a raid instead of the 28 bags they actually uncovered. The officers then used the cocaine they pocketed to pay off informants, something a law enforcement official later characterized as “noble cause corruption.” Are you serious? According to the New York Times, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office has had to dismiss charges or vacate convictions in 183 cases, and there are apparently 11 bags of cocaine now back on the streets of Brooklyn.

    The Gotham Gazette hit a homerun with its coverage by putting this story in its proper context, revealing the problem as system-wide, not limited to the bad actions of a few police officers. The Gazette cites a poignant comment made by law professor Alexandra Natapoff: “criminal snitching is a Frankenstein’s monster that has turned on and begun to consume its law enforcement creator.”

  • If you haven’t been following the travails of the Maple Tree Man, Ryan Frederick, you should start. In this tragic informant-related scandal, a police officer in Chesapeake, Virginia, lost his life during a botched SWAT-style raid when Frederick, the resident of the home being raided, mistook the police for thieves and fired a fatal shot at Detective Jerrod Shivers. Police had received a search warrant and acted based on an uncorroborated tip from an informant that Frederick was growing marijuana. The leafy greens identified by the informant turned out to be Japanese Maple seedlings. Oops.

    Frederick is now being charged with first degree murder for shooting a police officer. Many in the small Virginia community have rallied to his defense, pointing out that he should not have been the target of a paramilitary raid in the first place and that his home had in fact been burglarized only two or three days earlier, making his fear that the home invaders were thieves all the more believable.

    Unfortunately, the Maple Tree Man tragedy is not the first of its kind. We have seen this pattern before:

    Uncorroborated word of an informant + SWAT raid + innocent person = death.

    In 2006, a 92-year old Atlanta woman, Kathryn Johnston, lost her life after being fatally shot by SWAT agents during a botched raid that was later found to be based on fabricated informant information. Today, Cory Maye, the Mississippi man who mistakenly shot a police officer during a paramilitary raid conducted by officers acting on a false informant tip, also faces murder charges.

Add to all of this a handful of other unseemly informant-related missteps, including the Mansfield, Ohio fiasco, a Georgia police officer accused of raping an informant, and a Chicago-area informant who has apparently committed 40 some odd murders, and you have a pretty good case for large-scale reform of the informant system.

Luckily, the State of New York is considering a bill to put these necessary regulations in place. Other states should follow suit, and Congress should act at the federal level to stop this insanity. You can read about the specific solutions we recommend at: