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Commentary: Et Tu Brute? The politics of squealing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 3, 2009 - Legend has it that mob boss Sam Giancana was once walking with an associate who had just received a subpoena to appear before the grand jury. While discussing the possibility of the latter man testifying, they happened upon a fish market, in front of which the-catch-of-the-day was proudly displayed on a bed of crushed ice. Giancana reportedly paused and remarked to his acquaintance, "See that fish? He'd be alive today if he'd kept his f___ing mouth shut."

From Judas Iscariot to Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, snitches have ratted out their friends to the authorities. The betrayed associates are rarely sympathetic. Recently, former state Rep. Steve Brown wore a wire to help the Feds gather evidence against his close political ally, former state Sen. Jeff Smith. The motive for this manner of personal treachery is rarely a re-awakened sense of civic responsibility, although that's the way Brown's attorney accounts for the incident.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, defense guru Art Margulis, who represents Brown, explains, "As soon as he realized the gravity of the situation, he realized at that point that it was important to do the right thing. ... And the right thing at that point was to cooperate." Well, maybe...

Then again, as a licensed attorney and a former state deputy attorney general, Brown probably should have known in advance that violating federal election laws and conspiring to obstruct justice might have negative legal consequences.

At any rate, Smith ultimately pled to two felony counts of conspiracy to obstruct justice while Brown copped to one count of the same offense. It's also worth noting that cooperation with the government is a mitigating factor in federal sentencing guidelines, so Brown became eligible for a lighter sentence by giving up Smith.

Aside from the social prominence of the defendants -- both are graduates of Ladue's Horton Watkins High School -- there's nothing at all remarkable about how the case was made. When cops get the goods on one doer, they routinely make like Monty Hall and begin to play "Let's Make A Deal!"

People turn on family, friends and hallowed associates for the same reason they do most things -- they perceive it to be in their own best interest. The specific motives vary from one case to the next. Jilted lovers and estranged spouses are perennially fertile sources of information, but self-preservation and simple greed can also do the trick.

Thus do little fish betray their larger brethren. Given the general lack of altruism in the typical round of looking-out-for-#1, the game tends to be played in the shadows and the players prefer -- and often demand -- anonymity. This is especially true in narcotics cases where the only people who know enough to inform are usually involved in the illicit trade themselves.

The St. Louis Police Department is now mired in yet another controversy -- this one involving the use of confidential informants to obtain search warrants in drug cases. To understand the issue, a little background is in order.


Fourth amendment

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."


American courts operate under a principle called the "Fruit of the Poisoned Tree" doctrine. If evidence is deemed to have been obtained unconstitutionally -- usually in violation of the Fourth Amendment -- it is inadmissible in court. If a defense attorney cannot refute the actual evidence against his client, he or she can always question the manner in which it was obtained. When this ploy is successful, the press will report that the case was thrown out because of a "legal technicality." The material guilt of the defendant is not in dispute; the manner in which this guilt was discovered is the issue at hand.

When a snitch tips a narc that drugs are being dealt from a given address, the officer will conduct a surveillance of the premises. If he notes activity typical of drug trafficking (e.g. a high volume of short visits at odd hours), he will then prepare an affidavit in support of a search warrant and swear to same under oath before a circuit court judge. If the judge issues the warrant, the narc then has legal grounds to enter the building and search for narcotics.

Apparently fearing that defense lawyers are overworked, the Internal Affairs Division has recently demanded that about 20 narcotics officers produce their confidential informants for formal interview to verify the information contained in search warrant affidavits. This ploy should serve to take the confidentiality out of being a confidential informant and thus have a chilling effect on future cooperation with law enforcement, while concomitantly making it easier to deal drugs in the city.

Worse, it places the cop at the mercy of his snitch. His job on the line, the narcotics officer now has to hope that the junkie he's been sweating for information will do the right thing and come downtown to testify truthfully.

As the junkie has a vested interest in not being killed by the people he ratted out, and as you're as likely to meet a man of honor on a dope set as you are to pick up a nun at a bar during Mardi Gras, you can see why the cops are a bit uneasy over the situation.

The president of the St. Louis Police Officers' Association, Sgt. Gary Wiegert, tells his members, "My best advice is to discontinue the use of informants, paid or otherwise." As of this writing, a hearing is pending in circuit court to determine whether officers can be compelled to produce the informants they promised anonymity.

In his classic film, Platoon, Oliver Stone detailed the morally ambiguous plight of a grunt in Vietnam. At one point, the narrator grimly observes that "hell is the impossibility of reason." He should have been a cop...

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.