Between 2012 and 2015, federal judges reported at least 571 instances of “harms or threats” to government informants, says a survey by the Federal Judicial Center, the research and education arm of the federal judiciary. During that time, at least 31 informants were murdered, in and out of prison, by people who obtained information about their plea deals from unsealed court documents or transcripts of court proceedings, the Marshall Project reports. More common are violent acts designed to intimidate informants and their families. “The home he and his family resided in was shot up the day before he was scheduled to testify,” one judge said. “[They] burned his house down,” said another judge. Also common are online or other verbal threats to informants. “Name posted on Top Snitches Facebook page,” one judge reported. “Told family members to put his name on rats.com,” another judge said. Some actions were more traditional: “Flyers posted in his neighborhood that he cooperated,” one judge reported.
A committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference is calling on federal trial judges to impose new secrecy rules that would uniformly shield information about cooperators from public view. Florida federal Judge William Terrell Hodges, chair of the Committee on Court Administration and Case Management, said, “the harms to individuals and the administration of criminal justice in this instance are so significant and ubiquitous that immediate and effective action should be taken to halt the malevolent use of court documents in perpetuating these harms…” The problem is particularly acute in prison, Hodges said, because “new inmates are routinely required by other inmates to produce dockets or case documents in order to prove whether or not they cooperated.