Lessons of Disloyalty in the World of Criminal Informants

46 Pages Posted: 10 Dec 2010 Last revised: 12 May 2011

See all articles by Michael Rich

Michael Rich

Elon University School of Law

Date Written: December 9, 2010


Without informants, policing would grind to a halt. The majority of drug and organized crime prosecutions hinge on the assistance of confidential informants, and white collar prosecutions and anti-terrorism investigations increasingly depend on them. Yet society by and large hates informants. The epithets used to describe them – “snitch,” “rat,” and “weasel,” among others – suggest the reason: the informant, by assisting the police, is guilty of betrayal. And betrayal is, in the words of George Fletcher, “one of the basic sins of our civilization.” But identifying disloyalty as the reason for society’s disdain raises more questions than it answers. Are all informants disloyal, or are only some? Are there governing principles to distinguish those informants who are disloyal from those who are not? To whom are these informants disloyal? What import does an informant’s disloyalty have beyond the social stigma on the informant? These questions matter because informants are crucial cogs in the law enforcement machine, but they have largely escaped the attention of legal scholars.

This Article seeks to remedy this oversight. First, it explores how disloyalty functions in today’s society by looking to the observations of philosophers and legal scholars who have considered the nature of loyalty and disloyalty as moral constructs. The Article then examines three scenarios that suggest insights into when and why informants are considered disloyal. The first is the case of an accomplice-informant who assists police in apprehending and prosecuting her partners in crime. The second scenario is that of a community with particularized norms against cooperating with the police, with a particular focus on the “Stop Snitching” movement that has become increasingly influential in high-crime communities. The third scenario looks at informants in the rest of society, where particularized norms against assisting the police do not govern. The analysis of these scenarios reveals that issues of disloyalty arising from the use of informants intersect with and inform sociological research on the marginalization of communities and the impact of police legitimacy on civilian cooperation and compliance with the law, as well as scholarly concerns about overcriminalization.

The Article then makes three policy proposals that aim to enhance civilian cooperation with law enforcement without undermining police effectiveness. First, it is proposed that police and prosecutors amend their informant screening guidelines to explicitly and publicly require consideration of loyalty issues arising from the use of a given informant. Public acknowledgement in this manner that law enforcement officials share important community values would encourage voluntary cooperation with police and compliance with the law. Second, law enforcement policymakers should curtail informant recruitment in marginalized communities that are home to anti-cooperation norms in favor of alternative policing strategies, as current policies that encourage the widespread use of informants undermine police-community relations in these communities. Finally, lawmakers should limit the use of initiatives, derogatorily called “snitch lines,” that encourage civilian to report minor crimes and non-criminal suspicious behavior and consider decriminalizing some minor regulatory-type offenses. Mainstream society’s dissatisfaction with these programs, expressed in the harsh language of disloyalty, suggests discomfort with the “snitch lines” themselves, as well as the criminalization of the relatively minor offenses that they target.

Keywords: Informants, Snitches, Informers, Philosophy, Loyalty, Disloyalty, Betrayal, Stop Snitching

Suggested Citation

Rich, Michael, Lessons of Disloyalty in the World of Criminal Informants (December 9, 2010). Elon University Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2010-11, American Criminal Law Review, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1722597

Michael Rich (Contact Author)

Elon University School of Law ( email )

201 N. Greene Street
Greensboro, NC 27401
United States

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