In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Snitching and Use of Criminal Informants

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Poor High-Crime Neighborhoods
  • Stop Snitching
  • Reforms and Research

Criminology Snitching and Use of Criminal Informants
Alexandra Natapoff
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0044


Criminal informants occupy a central role in the US criminal system. Police rely heavily on criminal suspects to obtain information and get warrants, whereas prosecutors often use defendants as information sources in exchange for dropped charges or shorter sentences. This is particularly true in drug cases, which comprise approximately 30 percent of state and federal dockets but are not limited to that arena. The informant deal is widely used in every class of offense, from white-collar crime to child pornography to murder. Although many types of people give information to the government, criminal informants constitute a uniquely important and problematic class of witness because they are offenders who trade information in exchange for leniency for their own offenses. Unlike whistle-blowers or citizens who call 911, criminal informants (sometimes referred to as snitches) provide information in hope of escaping punishment for their own crimes, which has contributed to their well-documented unreliability, among other issues. At the same time, because the government tolerates or even forgives informants’ criminal activities, the informant deal has become a problematic crime-management policy in its own right as well as an independent source of crime in some instances. Criminal informant policies have wide-ranging legal, cultural, and racial implications. For example, because drug enforcement—and thus informant use—is concentrated in poor, minority communities, those neighborhoods have been overexposed to the phenomenon. Consequences include increased crime and violence, unreliable evidence used in warrants and prosecutions, and community distrust of police. The so-called stop snitching phenomenon expressed in rap music and other aspects of popular culture is in part a result of this dynamic. Criminal informants have also been important features in the evolution of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the white-collar enforcement strategies of the US Department of Justice, and most recently the war on terror. Finally, the law of informant use is changing; legislatures and governmental commissions in New York, California, Texas, Illinois, and Florida, among others, have considered or passed legal reform.

General Overviews

The general scholarly overview of criminal informant use is a relatively new phenomenon, largely because snitching has only recently been given its due as a topic of study. Journalistic attention was first made by Curriden 1995 in an influential series in the National Law Journal. Bickel 1999 is a Frontline documentary on the culture of snitching, and Brown 2007 captures many of the current worries about informants in federal drug enforcement. Bloom 2002 was the first academic treatment devoted entirely to the law of informants, whereas Natapoff 2009 broadens the legal discussion to include cultural, political, and racial issues. Fitzgerald 2007 provides a practical overview of legal and managerial issues. Although not addressing informants exclusively, Marx 1988 initiated the academic discussion twenty years ago by theorizing the general challenges posed by all undercover police work.

  • Bickel, Ofra, dir. 1999. Frontline: Snitch. Boston: PBS Video.

    Originally broadcast 12 January 1999. One of the first television treatments of the pervasiveness of criminal informant use, especially in drug cases, and an exploration of the human costs. Transcript available online.

  • Bloom, Robert M. 2002. Ratting: The use and abuse of informants in the American justice system. Westport, CT: Praeger.

    A legal survey of the law of informant use organized around four high-profile case studies illustrating legal issues, such as the Fourth Amendment’s search-and-seizure law, the right to counsel, and immunity. Appropriate for law school and graduate school courses.

  • Brown, Ethan. 2007. Snitch: Informants, cooperators, and the corruption of justice. New York: PublicAffairs.

    This journalistic survey of seven stories involving informants (each case has an in-depth chapter) is framed by a broad description of the war on drugs. The focus is federal cases, with heavy emphasis on how mandatory minimum sentences and the US Sentencing Guidelines enshrined cooperation as a central feature of federal drug investigations and cases.

  • Curriden, Mark. 1995. The informant trap: Secret threat to justice. National Law Journal (20 February): 1.

    An early investigation into the widespread and unregulated use of informants, especially in connection with warrant applications and forfeiture law. This article was one of the first to argue that informant use is secretive, unreliable, and a systemic problem for the criminal process.

  • Fitzgerald, Dennis G. 2007. Informants and undercover investigations: A practical guide to law, policy, and procedure. Boca Raton, FL: CRC.

    DOI: 10.1201/9780849304132

    Practical overview of the wide range of legal and management issues that arise in the informant arena with the focus on law enforcement and defense from the perspective of a former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent. The book surveys types of informants and their motivations and the recruiting process as well as challenges faced by different agencies and different types of criminal investigations.

  • Marx, Gary T. 1988. Undercover: Police surveillance in America. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    The classic sociological text on undercover police surveillance—including but not limited to the use of informants—and its impact on the changing nature of modern social control. The book compares international undercover approaches before examining various US techniques, such as undercover police officers, technological surveillance, stings, informants, and others.

  • Natapoff, Alexandra. 2009. Snitching: Criminal informants and the erosion of American justice. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive overview of all aspects of informant use, from drug snitching to hip-hop music, from the struggle of the Federal Bureau of Investigation with its Mafia informants to white-collar crime and corporate cooperation. Includes legal, sociological, and cultural analyses with special attention to the impact of informant policies on poor minority communities.

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