Word Problems: The Snitch's Dilemma

Harvey Keitel questions Isaiah Washington in Spike Lee's Clockers (1995)

What if you and your friend were arrested and you were offered leniency in exchange for information about your friend or "the streets"? The hip-hop community believes the very existence of the deal begs us to reconsider our concepts of loyalty and law enforcement.

Death Before Dishonor -- K.A.R. Entertainment's documentary about the "Stop Snitching" movement that has spawned music, websites, videos, and a clothing line -- examines hip-hop's response to the widespread use of confidential informants in criminal investigations and prosecutions. Hip-hoppers oppose the practice on the grounds that (1) "snitching" is wrong because it violates the "Code of the Streets", and (2) "snitches" are inherently unreliable and, therefore, any prosecution built around a snitch is likely to lead to wrongful convictions. With commentary from hip-hoppers, intellectuals, and law enforcement officials, the film frames its query around precarious relationships between co-conspirators.

At the outset, I'll say the DVD is worth watching and is a surefire way to spark a lively discussion. The extras -- a "Kill All Rats" music video and a few extra interview clips -- aren't worth much, but the documentary itself tackles its subject from several viewpoints and presents the pros and cons along the way.

In order to illuminate the nuances of this controversy, I'd like to offer a hypothetical; the game theorists call "The Prisoner's Dilemma". At its core, Death Before Dishonor's coverage of the Stop Snitching Movement revolves around a scenario that goes a little somethin' like this:

Suppose you and your friend (let's call the friend "Road Dawg") decide to commit a crime. In true Law & Order fashion, the police arrest you and Road Dawg. They take you both to the police station where the two of you are placed in separate interrogation rooms. The lead detective on the case walks into your room and says,

"We've got enough evidence to convict you and Road Dawg of criminal conspiracy. If you go down for that, you'll get a year in prison. But if we get evidence that you committed the crime, it'll be real bad for you. You'll get five years for sure. So look, I'm the only one who can help you right now. If you cooperate, things are gonna go better for you. We're gonna get more evidence about the crime -- trust me, it's just a matter of time. So why don't you do yourself a favor? If you provide a statement implicating Road Dawg in the crime, the district attorney will agree to knock a year off your charge. I'm gonna be honest with you. My partner's in the other room offering Road Dawg the same deal. You might as well make things easier on yourself before Road Dawg rolls over on you."

Got it?

All right, now let's discuss the options in connection with the Death Before Dishonor DVD.

Option #1: The "True Soldiers" Scenario

You and Road Dawg stay true to the Code of the Streets and refuse to rat each other out, in which case you'll both spend a year in jail on the conspiracy charge. One year's not so bad. If Lil' Kim can do it, you figure you can tough it out.

This, I think, is precisely what the Stop Snitching Movement would recommend. It might even be a win-win situation. From the societal perspective, neither person goes completely free, which shouldn't happen anyway since, under these facts, they're both guilty of conspiracy. Plus, they're getting the sentences that correspond with their acts. The cops can say, "We solved two more crimes", and the district attorney should be rather pleased. as well. Likewise, you and Road Dawg are cool because you didn't turn on each other and you'll be out in a year with your street credibility intact. Maybe you'll spend some time in the joint figuring out how to never end up in jail again -- that way, the punishment would serve the purposes of rehabilitation and deterrence. As for the defense attorneys, well, maybe they'll be a little down about a guilty verdict, but they'll get over it. Then again, the year in prison could be the result of a plea agreement, so that takes care of that. In any event, they won't have to endure people saying crap like, "I don't know how you can live with yourself after putting criminals back on the street."

But what exactly is hip-hop's interest in this? Here, the film's investigation is thorough. Rappers -- including Fat Joe, the Game, Jadakiss, Ja Rule, Young Jeezy, and more -- take the opportunity to weigh in on the "death before dishonor" mantra and share their perspectives. One overt and sensible point is Fat Joe's feeling that if you can't do your dirt without snitching when you get caught, then perhaps you should stay away from crime altogether. In this regard, the Stop Snitching slogan could be said to represent a "Don't Do the Crime If You Can't Do the Time" mentality.

Hip-hop's internal dramas figure prominently in the documentary. There's the strained relationship between Lil' Kim and Junior Mafia (and Lil' Cease specifically) related to Kim's stint in prison for her perjury conviction. As Kim relayed on "Spell Check" from her last album, The Naked Truth, "I'm more n*gga than those b*tch ass guys / 'Cause they took the stand on the D.A.'s side". In Death Before Dishonor, Lil' Cease gets a chance to tell his side of the story, explaining the nature of his testimony in Lil' Kim's trial. The DVD also tackles the allegations that 50 Cent was a confidential police informant.

Hip-hop fans should find these tidbits of interest. On a broader level, however, these skirmishes raise important points about hip-hop culture. Chief among these is hip-hop's blurring of the boundaries between fantasy and reality. When you hear a rap song about someone's criminal exploits, how much of it did the rapper keep real and how much is fiction? As Solar says in Death Before Dishonor, when hip-hop drifts into "gangsterism", doesn't the music invite police attention? Further, a rapper who takes the "gangsta" position may be expected to fulfill this role in real situations, if for no other reason than to maintain the street credibility necessary for album sales.

As a legal matter, a rapper could put enough information in a song to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence in a criminal investigation. In fact, Major Rick Hite of the Baltimore Police Department noted that a video about snitching was used "to arrest and convict the persons in the video." Apparently, your song lyrics can be the equivalent of snitching on yourself or others.

Option #2: The "One Man/One Rat" Scenario

This is the Stop Snitching Movement's paradigm scenario for arguing against the use of informants. It can go one of two ways.

The first way: You stay true to the Code of the Streets and refuse to rat out Road Dawg, but Road Dawg rats you out first. Road Dawg is free to go (the one-year sentence for the criminal conspiracy charge is reduced to nothing since Road Dawg cooperated). Meanwhile, you're going down for five years. As he struts out, Road Dawg chuckles, "Don't drop the soap."


The other way: You say, "Screw it. I ain't goin' down for this. Road Dawg is probably ratting me out right now." You cooperate with the police, discovering later that Road Dawg lawyered up and refused to talk even with an attorney present. You're free to go home, but Road Dawg's going down for five years. Good luck explaining this to your mutual friends in the 'hood.

It must be emphasized here that the reason the Prisoner's Dilemma works so well for this discussion is that the Stop Snitching Movement distinguishes "witnesses" from "snitches". A "witness" is considered a law-abiding citizen who comes forward to report a crime; a "snitch" is involved in a crime and barters information for favors.

The witness-snitch distinction underscores the fact that "snitching" represents an act of disloyalty and lack of trust. Death Before Dishonor opens with this sentiment, noting the long history of snitches being "reviled and looked upon with disgust." In the Prisoner's Dilemma, one of the factors determining your course of action is whether or not you would trust the other person to refuse to cooperate (the best result for both suspects) or whether your distrust would lead you to save yourself at any expense (great for you, but terrible for your partner). As this pertains to witnesses, you can at least say the nosy neighbor who saw you commit the crime and decided to turn you in was trying to do the right thing. But if your partner-in-crime turns you in, it's much worse. Not only did you get stabbed in the back, you look like an idiot for trusting the fink in the first place.

However, hip-hop hasn't been too keen on distinctions. According to Temple University Professor and PopMatters columnist Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, the complexity of "stop snitching" has been stripped away and, in some respects, converted into a mantra or slogan. As a result, the full import of the issue may not be entering the public discourse.

Hip-hop songs basically say, "Either you're true to the game or you're not." The little old lady who relays information to the cops doesn't get any slack. For instance, in Tupac's "Only Fear of Death" (from R U Still Down?), the rhyme goes:

My next door neighbor's having convos with undercovers

Put a surprise in the mailbox, hope she get it

Happy birthday, b*tch, you know you shouldn'ta did it

In the same way, Ice Cube's chorus in "Stop Snitchin'", from his 2006 release Laugh Now, Cry Later emphasizes a zero-tolerance policy for snitching rather than delineating the parameters of snitch behavior:

You can have whatever you want

In the 'hood, it's "do"s and "don't"s (stop snitchin')

So when it gets hot in this kitchen

Stop snitchin', n*gga, stop snitchin'

In that song, Ice Cube also pulls a Flavor Flav move from Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome" when he mimic's Flav's, "Who I trust? Who I trust? Me. That's who." Posses and crews proliferate in hip-hop, but the rap game carries an undercurrent of solitude. Death Before Dishonor's DVD cover sums it up nicely: "With trust comes betrayal."

"Snitch N*ggas", by Lake and Cormega (from 2006's My Brother's Keeper), describes hip-hop's view of the snitch's profile:

Snitches come in all shapes, sizes, and colors

But what I hate about 'em most is they be in the 'hood frontin'

Pumpin' on the block, n*ggas passin' 'em weed

These weak n*ggas think, "F*ck it, he never ratted on me"

Later, in his story about a friend who becomes a rat, Lake rhymes:

I was with you 'til the night you got caught, you was God to me

Thought you was a G'd up n*gga, that's why it's hard for me

To cope with the fact that you ratted, I denied it

'Til I seen your statements typed in the paper and highlighted

I scribed you, a couple of times, to remind you

You can't find redemption for snitchin' inside a bible

Option #3: The "Two Snitches Are Better Than One" Scenario

Both you and Road Dawg cooperate with the police.

You knew Road Dawg was weak from the beginning. Likewise, Road Dawg's friends always said you were a traitor. You think Road Dawg is in the other room squealing, so you might as well take the deal. Road Dawg thinks you're in the other room doing the same thing. This means you both go to jail for four years (you get five years for the statement Road Dawg made against you, but you get a one-year reduction for giving up information about Road Dawg, and vice versa).

Maybe it's better to keep your mouth shut. Yet, when rappers say this, opponents of the no-snitch position denounce it as a code of silence that provides safe harbor for criminals. "You should be doing your civic duty by reporting crimes", the argument goes. But actually, there is no such duty. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, dissenting from the majority in Roberts v. United States, 445 U.S. 552 (1980), said:

The countervailing social values of loyalty and personal privacy have prevented us from imposing on the citizenry at large a duty to join in the business of crime detection.... As highly as we value the directives of our criminal laws, we place their enforcement in the hands of public officers, and we do not give those officers the authority to impress the citizenry into the prosecutorial enterprise.

Viewed from this angle, Busta Rhymes's "lack of cooperation" with a police investigation regarding the murder of one of Busta's associates isn't an automatic example of a rapper shirking his "civic duty". Silence in these situations can be the result of a much more sophisticated dynamic than we might see on the surface.

Reliance on confidential informants should give us serious pause. Some of my colleagues in the legal profession have adopted a no-snitch policy of their own by refusing to represent snitches. Many attorneys take this position out of allegiance to their own moral codes (didn't know lawyers had those, did you?) as well as their belief that pro-snitching policies undermine the goals of the legal system.

Lawyers adopt a "Stop Representing Snitches" policy for several reasons. For one thing, they worry about the incarceration of innocent people. Like the interviewees in Death Before Dishonor stated, wrongful convictions can result when weight is given to uncorroborated and unreliable statements. A wrongful conviction in a capital case means people are landing on death row as a result, a proposition that is especially unpalatable when you consider how difficult it is to challenge an informer's testimony. Snitches are notoriously formidable on the witness stand because they are often being coached, are persuasive to juries when they build stories around inside information, are tough to contradict, and can become experienced with trials and the applicable rules of evidence.

Another reason attorneys may decline to represent snitches is simply this -- snitches lie. According to Barry Tarlow, a nationally recognized defense attorney and former prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office, the temptation for an informer's testimony to change in response to a "sweeter deal" may cause the informer's lawyer to worry about the possibility of suborning perjury [see Tarlow's column, "Rico Report: The Moral Conundrum of Representing a Rat", 30 Champion 64 (March, 2006)].

But if you think your client's going to lie, you can stop it, right? Well, not exactly. Attorney-client privilege (the legal system's no-snitching policy) might prevent the lawyer from telling a judge about the dilemma. Maybe the lawyer could withdraw from the case, but this wouldn't prevent false snitching if another lawyer takes the case or if the client continues alone. If you complain to the prosecutor, you might screw up the deal.

For another thing, the practice of rewarding such testimony offends the bedrock principle in criminal law that punishment should correlate to blameworthiness. Rather than being punished for committing crimes, snitches are being rewarded with reduced sentences, favors, or other forms of payment. In fact, the more serious your crimes and the deeper your involvement, the more likely you are to receive less time in jail. Eventually, criminals who snitch are then released back into the same communities the authorities claim to want to protect.

And, finally, how does an innocent person fare under a pro-snitching regime? If you didn't do the crime or if you don't have any knowledge about the crime, you've got nothing to offer, allowing for situations where guilty people can get better results by serving up others while an innocent person is unable to make any deal at all.

Think About It

When it gets right down to it, phrases like "Stop Snitching" and "Death Before Dishonor" are way more complex than they seem. Death Before Dishonor, the DVD, is an intriguing look at a growing phenomenon that invites us to reflect upon the justice system, the role of law enforcement officials, and hip-hop culture at large.

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