What it has come to in our Brave New World Order is that only cops are forgiven for not tattling on each other. Behind their thin blue line, a code of silence is still considered to be a badge of honor, the last gasp of fraternal solidarity in a nation otherwise eager to unzip itself, to spill whatever beans will perk the prurient interest of the authorities or the media -- in return for a lighter sentence, a bounty bonus, or a book contract. Assume the squealing position! To this contemptible new culture of blame-displacing songbirds, the DuPont- and Emmy Award- winning documentarian Ofra Bikel brings her unblinking camera, her tireless crossruff questions, her signature skepticism, and her civil-liberties fetish. The result is a ferocious installment of the PBS Frontline series called Snitch (Tuesday, January 12; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13).
Just see what Orrin Hatched (though the unrepentant Republican senator from Utah was hardly the only member of Congress in 1986 to push through legislation requiring mandatory minimum sentences in every drug case brought to trial in a federal court and to tack on an even more hastily conceived "conspiracy" amendment that subjected the smallest guppy in the pond to the maximum penalties intended for the sharks). If a judge has no discretion, and neither does a jury, only the prosecutors get to play. Young men and women in the wrong place at the wrong time, who happen to be related to -- or who even merely introduced the wrong people to -- one another, face twenty years to life without possibility of parole. Their only alternative to heavy-duty hard time is to shop somebody (anybody) else. Not surprisingly, the sharks tend to shop the guppies.
In the past five years, Bikel tells us, nearly a third of all those doing time in federal drug-trafficking cases had sentences reduced because they informed on others. In Snitch, we meet a few who aren't doing any time at all. Instead their girlfriends are, or their mothers, or a guy who drove the car to the site of the purchase, or someone they recall doing business with a decade ago. No evidence of "conspiracy" is necessary other than a stoolie's say-so -- not cash, not corroborative testimony, not even the drugs themselves.
All this may seem to you a niggle and a nag, maybe worth a twitch or two of that vestigial organ, the social conscience, but small beer in the larger picture of the great and glorious War on Drugs. You may even be inclined to disregard the self-interested vituperations of the defense attorneys Bikel talks to, at least till you meet Patrick Hallinan, the radical lawyer who defended the constitutional rights of one reputed drug kingpin, which kingpin then shopped Hallinan himself as a "conspirator." (This didn't work out so well for the government. Hallinan made mincemeat of its case in court and was acquitted, after which the prosecutors reneged on a promise of a lighter sentence for the kingpin!) You will also perhaps be unmoved by the qualms of district judges like Robert Sweet, and professors of constitutional law like Jonathon Turley, and even the appalled second thoughts of Eric Sterling, who was counsel to the chair of the House Subcommittee on Crime that formulated the 1986 law without bothering to conduct hearings in which they could have consulted concerned parties like the Bureau of Prisons.