I’ve heard comments many times about this or that person being “a rat”. It’s a term that says they are the lowest of the low, deserving of utter contempt, but it sure gets thrown around liberally. I’ve heard it in jail and on the street used to apply to any witness in a trial, or anyone that calls the police. Now I appreciate that many of those that throw the term around are not exactly artisans with the language. We’re not talking a lot of University graduates here. The thing is that the term “Rat” does have a specific meaning. Firstly, lets talk about what a rat is:
A rat is someone who is complicit in a crime, by reason of having had actual involvement in the offence, who then provides evidence, including statements, tips, written notes, recordings, or any information whatsoever to investigatory authorities for the purpose of assisting himself in escaping legal jeopardy. A rat is one who will do anything to save himself. A rat is, respectfully, a despicable person not because they are “telling on” someone, but because of their motivation. The motivation is to extricate themselves form the same legal peril, in effect to throw their partners to the wolves so as to be able to run away.
Sometimes it’s more effective to define a word by what it is not. Let’s have a try at that. What is not a rat?
- A rat is not a member of the public who phones in about a witnessed crime. They’re a witness to a crime and don’t have any involvement in it. They’re the ones that are supposed to call it in.
- A rat is not a criminal who tells on other criminals whom they are not involved with to get payments from the police or to sewer their competition. They are people who don’t follow the code (almost no one does) and they’re despicable persons, but they’re not rats.
- A rat is not a person who is the victim of a crime who then tells police about it. This includes criminally involved people who are for example beaten up by other criminals. If he talks to the police he is not following the code, but he’s not a rat.
- A rat certainly is not a victim of a crime who is a member of the general public. They’re supposed to turn to the police.
- A rat is not a criminal who is involved in a crime and then feels badly about it on a moral level and tells the police about his involvement as well as the involvement of his co-conspirators. This is the one that is really a fine line. Timing is usually the key part here, where the person goes in to police (or their priest, or counselor) to tell them of what occurred prior to any investigation when they have no reason to think they’re going to be caught, that’s a moral decision, or a lot more likely so anyway. Contrast this though with the conversation with police in the context of the crime being investigated, where the police say something like “we know you’re not the bad guy, you need to tell us about this”. Once the person knows that it might go better for them and then rolls over on their buddies to secure that benefit, bang, they’re a rat. They’ve made it. Rats are indeed despicable persons but they’re their own kind of despicable person, they’re a rat, and deserving of contempt.
I note that Canadian Law does in part make allowance for the dangers of persons who fall into the category of rat, and also of persons from a variety of other risky in terms of reliability witnesses, though those witnesses do not fall into the the category of “rat”. In a decision entitled
Vetrovec v. The Queen,  1 SCR 811, 1982 CanLII 20 (SCC)
the Supreme Court of Canada says that in addressing evidence from such persons in the course of a jury trial:
I would hold that there is no special category for “accomplices”. An accomplice is to be treated like any other witness testifying at a criminal trial and the judge’s conduct, if he chooses to give his opinion, is governed by the general rules.
I would only like to add one or two observations concerning the proper practice to be followed in the trial court where as a matter of common sense something in the nature of confirmatory evidence should be found before the finder of fact relies upon the evidence of a witness whose testimony occupies a central position in the purported demonstration of guilt and yet may be suspect by reason of the witness being an accomplice or complainant or of disreputable character. There are great advantages to be gained by simplifying the instruction to juries on the question as to when a prudent juror will seek some confirmation of the story of such a witness, before concluding that the story is true and adopting it in the process of finding guilt in the accused as charged. It does not, however, always follow that the presiding justice may always simply turn the jury loose upon the evidence without any assisting analysis as to whether or not a prudent finder of fact can find confirmation somewhere in the mass of evidence of the evidence of a witness. Because of the infinite range of circumstance which will arise in the criminal trial process it is not sensible to attempt to compress into a rule, a formula, or a direction the concept of the need for prudent scrutiny of the testimony of any witness. What may be appropriate, however, in some circumstances, is a clear and sharp warning to attract the attention of the juror to the risks of adopting, without more, the evidence of the witness. There is no magic in the word corroboration, or indeed in any other comparable expression such as confirmation and support. The idea implied in those words may, however, in an appropriate case, be effectively and efficiently transmitted to the mind of the trier of fact. This may entail some illustration from the evidence of the particular case of the type of evidence, documentary or testimonial, which might be drawn upon by the juror in confirmation of the witness’ testimony or some important part thereof. I do not wish to be taken as saying that such illustration must be carried to exhaustion. However, there is, in some circumstances, particularly in lengthy trials, the need for helpful direction on the question of sifting the evidence where guilt or innocence might, and probably will turn on the acceptance or rejection, belief or disbelief, of the
evidence of one or more witnesses. All of this applies equally in the case of an accomplice, or a disreputable witness of demonstrated moral lack, as for example a witness with a record of perjury. All this takes one back to the beginning and that is the search for the impossible: a rule which embodies and codifies common sense in the realm of the process of determining guilt or innocence of an accused on the basis of a record which includes evidence from potentially unreliable sources such as an accomplice.
Sometimes the Supreme Court of Canada gets it wrong but I think they did a pretty nice bit of work on this one. I note however that they don’t draw a moral distinction in terms of the particular category of the person giving evidence. In my view there is one.