TAXES, PRISON, AND THE UNTIED SNITCHES OF AMERICA

by Geoff Olson

The Canada Revenue Agency’s snitch line allows callers to rat out Canadians who hide taxable income in offshore tax havens. If the cheater owes more than $100,000 to the feds, the caller can collect a reward between five and 15 per cent of the recovered funds.

If you’re anything like me, you won’t have much sympathy for high-flying Canadians caught squirrelling away fat stacks in the Caymans and elsewhere. And if you have any leads for the CRA, you certainly won’t mind being compensated as a successful whistleblower. It’s win-win for the taxpayer, right?

But wait. First the CRA turned Canadian entrepreneurs into collection officers through the GST, and now we’re expected to be their gumshoes? By outsourcing leads, “The Offshore Tax Informant Program” makes snitching to the state seem not just normal, but necessary — with “mission creep” a distinct possibility.

Many American informants have won big payouts from IRS investigations, but I want to focus elsewhere to highlight the frictionless surface of this slippery slope. In particular, the travesty of U.S. anti-drug laws — specifically, a little amendment involving “conspiracy to traffic in drugs.”

Under U.S. federal law, any American citizen can be convicted of such conspiracy by a jury through the testimony of one person, even a felon. No physical evidence or corroborating testimony is necessary. Those who give such testimony are often cutting deals with prosecutors to reduce their own sentences. By offering names, they can avoid a mandatory minimum sentence for drug trafficking between five and 10 years. The opportunity for jail time is passed on to those they name.

With mandatory minimums, a judge cannot lower a sentence because of the circumstances of the case, the motivation or likelihood of repeating the crime. That is, unless the accused provides “substantial assistance” to the government. Snitching, in other words. Thousands of sentences are reduced or forgiven this way every year. Many of these deals take place in secret, with no lawyers or documentation.

This is Dark Ages stuff. Centuries ago, the Roman Catholic Inquisition worked from a similar template of cruelly incentivized testimony, creating a generationally renewable resource of accused witches for the Vatican.
In the PBS documentary Snitches, Frontline producer Ofra Bikel tells the story of Joey Settembrino, an 18-year-old from Fort Lauderdale who was set up by a good friend who himself was caught with drugs.

“The friend asked Joey to get some LSD for him. When Joey finally did that, he delivered it to the friend who was accompanied by a DEA agent. So obviously he was caught red-handed, and he pled guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison,” notes Bikel on the Frontline website.

Joey had no one to set up to get a reduction in his sentence. His father James was told that he, the father, could go set up others by trying to sell them drugs. If he was successful tricking enough people, that would help reduce his son’s prison term, says Bikel.

“To me, it seemed crazy — here was a businessman who had nothing to do with drugs, and he was on his way to set up people so he can reduce his son’s prison term…. But I realized no one else in the field thought that there was anything peculiar about it. The prosecutor kept saying, ‘What’s wrong with this? We do it all the time.’”

The kicker is that Bikel’s documentary aired in January 1999. It was Democratic president Bill Clinton who introduced mandatory minimum drug laws with the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. His successors have continued his legacy by expanding the U.S. prison-industrial complex along with the obscene practice of institutionalized snitching. Although the U.S. has only 4.6 per cent of the world’s population, it has 25 per cent of the world’s inmates.

“The Smarter Sentencing Act” currently before the U.S. Senate is engineered to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent drug offenders. (Ironically, when the first glimmers of judicial light appeared across the border, the Harper government introduced harsh mandatory minimum drug laws for drug offences through Bill C-10.)

In any case, it’s obvious that Canadian revenue collection and the U.S. “justice” system are entirely different beasts. Except for a shared practice of incentivized snitching. Once Canadians accept this as the norm, we’ve crossed the Rubicon.

The Vancouver Courier, Feb. 20

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