Seems like a guy can't get a break in this town. Alleged mob informant Shemtov Michtavi, sued the New York Daily News and the Polish Daily News for defamation and emotional distress after they printed that he planned to cooperate with prosecutors while behind bars serving 20 years for narcotics offenses. Being called the "key lieutenant" of Ze'ev Rosenstein, an organized crime figure, really didn't bother the alleged mobster. Being called a snitch did.
Unfortunately for Michtavi, the District Court as well as the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. Sure, nobody likes to be called a tattletale, but there is a bit more to a defamation suit. Under New York law, a defamation suit turns on whose good opinion you are seeking. In that state, defamation does not exist unless the statements made "... would expose an individual to shame in the minds of right-thinking persons." The court grumbled a bit, writing that it had become increasingly hard in today's world, to ascertain who exactly "right-thinking" persons would actually be. However, they had no difficulty describing just who was not eligible for the title of "right-thinking" person.
After going into some detail, the court bottom-lined it for Michtavi. "The fact that a communication tends to prejudice another in the eyes of even a substantial group is not enough [to make the statement defamatory] if the group is one whose standards are so anti-social that it is not proper for the courts to recognize them." Thus, the good opinion of Michtavi's fellow inmates that he (maybe justifiably) valued, didn't count for much with the Court.
Finally, the Court cited several cases showing that communicating to the larger community that a person intended to cooperate with the powers that be is just not that bad. As the Court put it: "At most the language claimed to have been used accuses the plaintiff of giving information of violations of the law to the proper authorities. Are such acts reprehensible? Is such language defamatory? This court thinks not."
It seems protective custody in jail might perhaps be an option. Damages for defamation, not so much.
- Full Opinion: Michtavi v. New York Daily News, et al. (FindLaw)
- Can I Say That? Defamation Law Made Simple (FindLaw)
- James Cagney, "You dirty rat..." (Wikipedia)
- Criminal Defense FAQs (provided by Law Office of J. Kevin Stockstill, L.L.C.)
- Dos and Don'ts When Arrested (provided by David J. Larkin, Attorney at Law)