Playing the Victim Card

The Charlotte Observer reported that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD), the largest police department in North Carolina, is implementing a new program to help solve current and cold cases. You may be thinking new DNA testing or interrogation methods but you would be wrong. The CMPD is leaving it to the cards, literally. CMPD is printing the faces of murder victims onto playing cards that will be handed out to prisoners in Mecklenburg County.

CMPD hopes that by placing pictures of murder victims onto decks of cards, prisoners will contact Crime Stoppers with information. With approximately 600 open homicides in the city of Charlotte, the first set features 26 victims on the deck of cards. Inmates will also be compensated for passing on a successful tip to Crime Stoppers.

How will this help solve crimes in Charlotte? It is extremely possible that prisoners may take advantage of this newly implemented program. It is common for what are called “jailhouse snitches” to falsely claim to know something about a case in exchange for receiving less time in jail. Not only is this a huge waste of time for investigators but it also reopens the old wounds of the victim’s family. It is also common for “jailhouse snitches” to seek out information from other inmates at the direction of the police which violates the United States Constitution. In hopes of receiving less jail time and potentially money for themselves or family, false tips may be given to Crime Stoppers as a result of this practice. Two men in Southern California were living like “kings” because they worked as jailhouse snitches raking in $335,000 between the two of them in four years. These snitches became so well paid; California passed a state bill to correct the payment of informants. Likewise, these men dodged the death penalty by informing the police of statements made by inmates. Tony Saavedra, 2 Jailhouse Snitches, who were paid $335,000 over Four Years, Spark New Legislation, The Orange County Register (May 4, 2017, 2:23pm), .

Is this a violation of the Sixth Amendment? Under the United States Constitution, a criminal defendant has the right to assistance by an attorney. The right to an attorney is critical in nearly every phase of the criminal process. In some form, placing a deck of “victim cards” into prisons could loosely be considered entrapment. Without an attorney present, prisoners could be questioned concerning certain local cases. Other inmates could also elicit criminal statements at the direction of the police. This is dangerous in preserving individuals constitutional right to an attorney. Likewise, this degrades the criminal justice system. One article discussing this issue explains that this practice “breaks down the integrity of the criminal justice system in three key ways: innocent people go to prison, justice for victims is delayed and public trust in the criminal justice system is eroded.” Tony Saavedra, 2 Jailhouse Snitches, who were paid $335,000 over Four Years, Spark New Legislation, The Orange County Register (May 4, 2017, 2:23pm), .

Finally, who would want to use this deck of cards? These are photos of murder victims. I doubt that many prisoners will be eager to use these cards. Time will tell as to whether this new program can help solve any crimes. The likelihood of the right person getting ahold of a card they have some knowledge on would be rare. CMPD hopes that “street knowledge” will come to light through a deck of cards. CMPD had a clearance rate of 66% in 2016. A clearance rate is the ability of a police department to solve a homicide. Normally, this is established by arresting someone for the crime. While the CMPD average is about 1% higher than the national average, it still makes you wonder how much a deck of cards can help solve a crime.

While it is certainly sad that these cases have continued to be unsolved, it is unclear as to what role these cards will play with leads and tips. Additionally it is yet to be determined how accurate these tips will be. Unfortunately, it may create more confusion and harm to the families of these victims. At this time, only one deck of cards has been printed.

Drafted by Megan S. White, Attorney-at-Law

The Charlotte Observer article may be found at: