Using Informants in Criminal Cases
Law enforcement investigators frequently utilize informants to try and build a case against someone they believe has committed a crime. The use of informants in California criminal cases is quite common. Still, it is also frequently considered a legal "gray area" because it can be so difficult to verify the reliability of an informant's testimony.
Informants are people who confidentially give information about suspected criminal activity to law enforcement. They are often called “rats' or “snitches.”
There are different types of informants, such as citizen informants, police confidential informants, and Perkins informants that are planted inside a jail cell to gather information from a target defendant. Other informants can come from a jail inmate after they overhear another inmate talking about their alleged crime.
Citizen informants don't usually expect compensation for the information they provide. They are someone who was an unsuspecting witness near the scene of a crime. In other words, they happen to be in the right place at the right time. These informants will contact the police and give them their information without expecting anything.
Police confidential informants, on the other hand, are people who provide information to a law enforcement agency in return for compensation.
Some will receive cash payments from police detectives and are not connected to the case. Others are defendants in a criminal case who provide information about other potential suspects to get leniency in their case.
The use of informants is relatively common in complex criminal activities like serious felony offenses committed by street gangs. Our California criminal defense lawyers will discuss below how police and prosecutors may utilize informants and how this may negatively impact your rights as a defendant.
What Is an Informant?
Again, as noted above, an informant provides information to law enforcement about someone else's possible criminal activity.
An informant may be an eyewitness, or they may be relying on hearsay. Sometimes, an informant may have been involved in criminal activity. There are different types of informants:
- Police Confidential Informants: These are informants who provide information to the police in exchange for something else. Sometimes, these informants are accused of a crime and are looking to bargain for leniency in exchange for cooperation. Sometimes, they are people in close contact with criminal activity who exchange information for cash. Or they may have something similar to gain by "ratting out" someone else.
- Citizen Informants: These people provide information to police about a crime they have witnessed or heard about without any expectation of compensation. They may come forward because they want to do the right thing or because they are worried about retaliation if they don't.
- Jailhouse Informant: These are usually jail inmates who talked to a target defendant directly or overheard them talking to someone else. They are called a “jailhouse snitch” and usually seek lenient treatment for their information.
- Perkins Informants: This is when law enforcement plants someone inside a jail cell with the target defendant to get some statement from them to be used in their prosecution.
Generally speaking, citizen informants are considered more reliable sources of information than police confidential informants because they have less reason to lie. However, prosecutors have ultimately obtained many convictions based on the initial testimony of police confidential informants.
How Are Informants Used in Criminal Cases?
Informants considered reliable or whose information can be verified by other sources might sometimes be called to testify at preliminary hearings for defendants so prosecutors can justify the need for a criminal trial in front of the judge.
If informants are exceptionally reliable, they may even be called upon to testify at trial. However, in most cases, informant testimony isn't enough on its own to be treated as evidence.
Thus, the most common way investigators use informants is to prove probable cause is to obtain an arrest or search warrant.
For example, a police officer gets information from an informant, who will keep their identity confidential and then place the information in an affidavit to present to a judge, who will sign a warrant if they determine the affidavit shows probable cause.
In these situations, an informant may provide information about the criminal activity they have witnessed or been a part of that helps police build their case. For example, let's say that an informant tells the police that they saw the defendant dealing drugs out of their car. The informant may be able to provide police with:
- a description of the car,
- the license plate number, and
- where the defendant was last seen.
This information may be enough for police to get a search warrant for the defendant's car. And if drugs are found in the car, the informant's testimony may be used to help prove that the defendant was aware that the drugs were there and that they intended to sell them.
The Controversy Surrounding Informants
While informants have often played an important role in law enforcement's ability to investigate and prosecute criminal activity, their use is also quite controversial.
There are several reasons why informant testimony, particularly confidential informants, may result in an unfair trial for the defendant. Here are some of the main concerns:
- Informants may be incentivized to lie in exchange for leniency or money. This raises concerns about the accuracy of their testimony.
- Law enforcement may develop biased relationships with informants. This can lead to law enforcement being more likely to believe an informant's testimony, even if it is false.
- Informants may be promised leniency in exchange for their cooperation but not receive it. This can lead to them feeling resentful and motivated to lie in court.
- Informant testimony may be weighted too heavily. Because informants are often only used in cases with little other evidence against the defendant, their testimony may be given more weight than it deserves. This can result in defendants being wrongfully convicted based on the word of an unreliable informant.
For these reasons, many defense attorneys will work to impeach the credibility of informants when they are called to testify. This may involve pointing out any inconsistencies in their story or evidence that they have been incentivized to lie. In some cases, getting the informant's testimony excluded from the trial may also be possible.
If you need more information about informants in California criminal cases, contact us to review the details. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, and you can reach us by phone or using the contact form.