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Informants: Are they also a poison?

Anjuli Verma,
Drug Law Reform Project
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January 28, 2008

Yesterday’s New York Times story about the recent news that four Brooklyn narcotics officers were caught paying informants with drugs seized from busted dealers brilliantly tied the recent spate of informant-related scandals together by stating: “It is sometimes said that snitches are the lifeblood of police work. The question is: Are they also a poison?” That’s a good question.

The ACLU Blog has been tracking the steady parade of informant-related scandals across the country for the past few months, as has Grits for Breakfast and The Agitator – two other excellent sources of information on abuses within the informant system. It is our hope that by raising public awareness of the ways in which our currently unchecked, unregulated and out-of-control informant system is threatening – not protecting – the public’s safety, policymakers will take concrete steps to put in place some desperately needed reforms.

As the New York Times article mentions, New York State is currently considering legislation proposed by Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol that would require prosecuting attorneys who plan to use informant testimony to collect and report of key data about informants to the judge, the defense counsel and to the Department of State. The legislation would also require that a judge convene a reliability hearing to determine whether the informant is trustworthy enough to present testimony against the defendant.

The State of New York should take seriously the problem of abuse and corruption within its informant system and do more than put police officers at fault on desk duty. Passing Lentol’s proposal would be a big step towards solving a big problem, because this isn’t an instance of a few bad apples. It’s a rotten orchard.

To learn more about the concrete ways in which policymakers across the country at both the state and federal level can address the failings of our nation’s informant system, visit In the meantime, we will continue to track instances of informant-related scandals – but we need your help. If you have a personal story to tell about how you have been affected by our unchecked and unregulated informant system, please fill out this form.