With the “Stop Snitchin’” movement sweeping American cities, a new website is posting names and photos of witnesses who have testified in exchange for sentencing leniency. The New York Times' Adam Liptak describes what prosecutors are doing to get the site removed.
BOB GARFIELD: In the 1990 mob movie Goodfellas, Robert De Niro tells a young Ray Liotta that there are two things to remember after being arrested. Always keep your mouth shut, and never rat on your friends. At the end of the movie, Liotta is sitting with an FBI agent, singing like a canary, in exchange for his freedom and witness protection.
Nearly 20 years later, in the wake of television shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, the criminal informant has become a thoroughly demonized figure, not just in popular culture but in real life, so much so that a website is now devoted to shaming them, exposing not only informants but a First Amendment puzzler.
New York Times legal correspondent Adam Liptak wrote about WhosaRat.com, and he joins me now. Adam, welcome to the show. ADAM LIPTAK: Thanks for having me. BOB GARFIELD: Who's behind this, and what is he up to? ADAM LIPTAK: The guy who founded this site is named Sean Bucci, and he was apparently indicted and since convicted on marijuana charges, after being indicted on information provided by an informant.
He started this site, I think, kind of as a little hobby. And it turned into something quite big. It allows people to post the identities of informants and undercover agents and relies very heavily on court documents, so that it's public record information but it's being used for what a lot of people think is a troubling end. BOB GARFIELD: He was mad that confidential testimony put him at legal peril? And was this an act of revenge? ADAM LIPTAK: Yeah, on two levels. One, I think he was mad at the particular person who ratted him out, but he was also mad – and he's not alone in this – at a system which relies very heavily on informants who are paid, in a way, to say things by getting more lenient sentences. BOB GARFIELD: And I guess, you know, if I'm the snitch, I don't only have to worry about the people in the contemporaneous prosecution. I also have to worry about ever going to prison again where snitches are not well regarded and not well treated, as I understand it. ADAM LIPTAK: Well, that's right. The Justice Department contends that this will endanger people's lives, so they want to do something quite radical, which is to take all plea agreements, whether involving cooperating witnesses or not, off of the federal court's internet sites, and thereby really cut back on public access to what has long been thought to be public documents. BOB GARFIELD: All right, so let's talk about the Constitution. Is there any legal way for the Justice Department or anyone else to intervene to cut off this flow of information to the public? ADAM LIPTAK: Well, there are two things they can do. One is to go after the site itself, and there are some plausible theories that at least some of the information they post might, in fact, amount to aiding and abetting or witness tampering or something like that, although that's the weaker of the two options.
Probably the better of the two options is not the wholesale route that the Justice Department wants to go down but a thoughtful piece-by-piece discussion with the judge in the given case about precisely what information ought to be sealed. And when it's sealed, and needs to be sealed, it can be sealed constitutionally both in paper form and electronic form.
But what the Justice Department wants to do instead is take a kind of shortcut, which is to leave the paper files as is and just cut off Internet access. And that doesn't seem to be the best solution. BOB GARFIELD: I want to get back to the website itself. Is there something that I'm missing here, some reason that this should not offend me to the core? ADAM LIPTAK: You know, I share that intuition, Bob, and yet after the story appeared, thoughtful defense lawyers contacted me and put postings on The New York Times' site in which they made the point that the more information out there the better, that some of these informants make up stories in multiple cases in exchange for leniency, and that there is a societal value in getting information about them out. BOB GARFIELD: To your knowledge, has anyone actually been harmed or threatened or intimidated in any way throughout the history of WhosaRat.com? ADAM LIPTAK: The Justice Department cites one example. In writing to the federal judiciary, they say that a witness they had in a Philadelphia operation had to be moved and an investigation started after material from WhosaRat.com was posted on utility poles and cars and mailed to this guy's neighbors. That's the only one that they pointed to, and it didn't seem to end particularly badly for the witness. But it does give you a flavor for the sorts of things that could happen. BOB GARFIELD: In the piece, you said that the rationale for this is, as someone put it to you, nobody likes a tattletale. But I teach my kids that sometimes you do have to tattle – not over things that are minor but over things that are important.
Has the culture so degraded that the question of informing on a criminal has become an open question? ADAM LIPTAK: There was a session at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice a week or two ago, which is a school of higher education that trains law enforcement officials, and there was an open session about whether it's appropriate to snitch.
And among the students, among the students being trained in law enforcement, some of them took the position that it's not appropriate to cooperate with the police because the police can't be trusted. And this manifests itself in rap music. It manifests itself on tee shirts. And it does seem to be a societal movement or feeling with some force. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Adam. Thank you very much. ADAM LIPTAK: Thank you, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Adam Liptak is the national legal correspondent for The New York Times. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, Nielsen measures ratings for commercials, and an argument over who gets to represent the religious. BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from NPR.