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VOL. 122 | NO. 105 | Thursday, June 7, 2007

Local legal community recoils at 'Rat' Web site

By Amy O. Williams

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OH, RATS: Members of the local legal community have raised eyebrows over a Web site that exposes the identities of informants and undercover agents.

A Web site touting itself as the largest online database of informants and undercover agents has local law enforcement officials concerned about the safety of sources critical to criminal prosecution.

The subscription-only site, whosarat.com, currently has more than 4,700 profiles of confidential informants and undercover agents on its pages.

Undercover investigations are crucial to getting gangs, guns and drugs out of the community's neighborhoods, said Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons. The district attorney's office, like law enforcement agencies across the country, uses confidential informants and undercover agents regularly to prosecute criminal cases.

"It is very unfortunate that there are individuals who want to put law enforcement officers' lives at risk by publicizing their names and photographs on a Web site," Gibbons said. "It is sad that anyone would want to jeopardize the safety of undercover officers and the public in this way."

Whosarat.com was launched in 2004 by a man - identified by The New York Times as Sean Bucci - who is serving time in federal prison. Bucci was convicted in 2004 on drug charges based on information provided by an informant, according to a May 22 Times article.

Safety compromised

A disclaimer on whosarat.com reads in part, "This Web site and the information contained within is definitely not an attempt to intimidate or harass informants or agents or to obstruct justice. This Web site's purpose is for defendants with few resources to investigate, gather and share information about a witness or law enforcement officer. Freedom of speech, Freedom of Information Act, and an individual's constitutional right to investigate his or her case protect this Web site."

But Mike Dunavant, district attorney general for the five-county 25th district, which includes Fayette and Tipton counties, said the Web site causes him to worry about the safety of informants and undercover agents used by his office to prosecute cases.

"Of course I am concerned and disturbed about anybody who is being identified and publicized as being someone who is a snitch or a confidential informant that is working for the police because I think that it endangers that person in the future," he said. "Confidential informants can get killed if they are identified as such while they are doing their business in an undercover sting operation."

"It is very unfortunate that there are individuals who want to put law enforcement officers' lives at risk by publicizing their names and photographs on a Web site. It is sad that anyone would want to jeopardize the safety of undercover officers and the public in this way."
- Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons

Dunavant said confidential informants often are used in one county, and once they have been identified there, might be used in an undercover operation in another county.

Creating a stigma

A Web site like whosarat.com makes law enforcement officials' jobs even harder, Dunavant said.

"The more that confidential informants are revealed, the less people are going to be willing to come forward and do that, even if they are paid," he said, "and, the more we will have to endanger law enforcement by putting them in a position of doing undercover work. So I think all the way around it is disturbing to me."

Michael Heidingsfield, president and chief executive officer of the Memphis Crime Commission, said nothing good can come from the Web site.

"Let's start with the title 'whosarat' that immediately stigmatizes anybody who provides information to police," he said.

On the whosarat.com home page, the site's logo features an image of a rodent perched atop the word "rat," written in large, capital letters.

Heidingsfield said terms like "rat" and "snitch" perpetuate the notion that cooperating with law enforcement officials is wrong.

"(The site) goes hand in hand with this cottage industry that has popped up, in particular in the rap music community, where you hear the term, 'Snitches mean stitches,' which suggests there is going to be physical violence against people who report crimes," Heidingsfield said. "The use of terms like 'rat' and 'snitch' immediately denigrates anybody who even contemplates or considers providing information to law enforcement, so there is no good that comes out of this."

Opening all records

James P. Gallagher, a Memphis defense attorney and municipal judge in Fayette County, said the defense typically would like to have information about all evidence or testimony that could be used against a client. The information could be used to test a witness' truthfulness.

But he said the site worries him just as it does law enforcement officials.

"That concerns me quite a bit when people start putting law enforcement (officers) in harm's way," Gallagher said.

In Tennessee, final court records are open and available to the public.

"If there has been a plea agreement, that agreement may include that defendant being used to provide information," Heidingsfield said. "For somebody who is diligent enough, they can probably dig and find that information."

To view the profiles, or just about anything else on whosarat.com, users must buy a membership that ranges from $7.99 for a one-week trial to $89.99 for a lifetime membership. A lifetime membership also has a "Stop Snitching" T-shirt included with the price.

Wave of the future?

As harmful as whosarat.com could be, the Web site might be a sign of the times, Dunavant said.

"The Internet has made the world a lot smaller," he said. "And I guess it is just one more challenge that law enforcement and prosecutors have in front of us."

Both Heidingsfield and Dunavant said informants are a daily part of prosecuting criminal cases.

But the reasons the informants cooperate with law enforcement might vary as much as the informants themselves.

"Informants are motivated by different things. Some are motivated just by the urge to do good," Heidingsfield said. "But they don't want to be the victims of retribution, so they want their confidentiality maintained."

Some informants are defendants in criminal cases and are willing to provide information in exchange for lesser sentencing, and some, Heidingsfield said, simply enjoy the attention.

"There are lots of motivators in there, but there are many, many people in the United States who understand the obligation to report criminal behavior," he said. "This kind of thing just diminishes that. That's what makes (the site) so absolutely wrong."

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