The use of informants in criminal cases is nothing new. In theory, it’s a way for the general public to do their civic duty, as well as a way for police to work together with civilians and criminals to serve the common good. Using jailhouse spies and compensating them with a reduced sentence or using a drug addict to lure a drug kingpin to his or her own arrest has been the plotline of many a Hollywood movie. Recently however, the judicial system is looking at these methods more carefully amid questions about their constitutionality.
Citizen informants, or eyewitness informants, are simply people who happen to witness or have general knowledge about a crime. These individuals voluntarily go to the police with information without expecting any kind of compensation. Most often, it’s because they feel a sense of civic duty and approach the police because it’s the “right thing to do.”
Police confidential informants also provide information; but in contrast with citizen informants, it’s done with the expectation they’ll get something in return. By providing incriminating information about others, they may receive cash or more lenient treatment in their own criminal case. This is particularly common with defendants who are significantly involved in complex criminal activities, such as drug cartels or street gangs. Their position often motivates them to talk if facing charges, and they can be valuable sources.
Another kind of police confidential informant is what’s known as the “jailhouse snitch,” who comes across damaging information accidentally. This is typically an inmate who overhears a confession by another inmate, then turns the information over to the authorities in exchange for an early release or some other kind of leniency.
The information shared by these different types of informants can be utilized in a number of ways. One obvious method is for the informant to serve as a witness for the prosecution during a hearing or criminal trial. What’s more common, though, is for the police to use the information to help them secure arrest or search warrants. In fact, there are standards for issuing warrants based on information provided by an informant. For example, the judge has to first deem the information and the source to be believable. But when it comes down to it, what an informant says is just hearsay. How can anyone be sure that the material they are supplying is even true? What kind of reliability is there?
Even people who aren’t getting anything from the police department in exchange for the information could have plenty of motive to be dishonest, including a desire to get revenge on the accused person for one reason or another. The police usually know very little, if anything, of any prior relationship or history between the informant and the accused. Building a criminal case on information supplied by an informer is full of ethical and practical issues.
For one, the officer-informant relationship tends to walk a fine line between professional and personal. There’s often a rapport that develops, whether genuine or not. The relationship, mixed with the motives of the police officers, often means that the officers make promises they can’t actually keep. In addition, when money is the reward for information in a drug crime, there’s a troubling likelihood that the money itself will be used for drugs.
In California, a recent investigation into the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and sheriff’s department tried to shed some light on the issue of whether bringing jailhouse informants into play denies fair trial rights. In order to use them legitimately, informants need to be completely passive. That is nearly impossible because, essentially, the purpose of a cellmate informant is to actively work for the government to get information from an accused person. If the accused party thinks they’re talking candidly to another inmate and have previously invoked their right to counsel, the police may be violating that person’s Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights.
The actual laws surrounding the use of informants is complex. Whether you have been approached to act as an informant or have had information gathered by an informant used against you, speaking with a skilled criminal defense attorney about your rights is critical. An advocate in your corner who will thoroughly review and investigate the factual and the legal issues in your case can make all the difference.
From Kentucky misdemeanors to federal charges and felonies, the Lexington-based Carman Law Firm has the knowledge and experience necessary to obtain the best possible resolution of your criminal charges. KY informant attorney Dan Carman provides aggressive representation with proven results to clients throughout the state in communities such as Richmond, Winchester, Georgetown and Nicholasville. A native of Lexington and a graduate of the University of Kentucky College of Law, Dan is dedicated to helping those in his community who may find themselves struggling with serious allegations. Contact him today and tell him your side of the story. Call (859) 685-1055 or fill out this online contact form.