Articles on South Carolina Law

Confidential Informants, a.k.a. “Police Snitches,” Revealed

by | Aug 4, 2020 | Criminal Defense, DUI

Confidential informants are one of those things that seem to lurk around in the underground of criminal activity. The idea of the police working with someone who is facing criminal charges is a very sketchy concept to some, but a reality in the criminal justice system. When police are working with people who they are locking up or threatening to lock up, you may start to wonder if the police are looking out for “the Government’s” confidential informants, or is their first priority obtaining convictions … and if so, how much does the Government really care about the safety and welfare of their Confidential Informants?

In this article you will learn:

  • What a confidential informant is;
  • If a confidential informant can be used against you;
  • Whether and when the identity of a confidential informant has to be disclosed;
  • How a confidential informant can hurt your case; and
  • The pros and cons of being a confidential informant.

Common Questions About Confidential Informants:

1. What is a confidential informant?

Confidential informants aren’t the same as anonymous sources or tipsters. A confidential informant (“CI”) is someone that is typically facing criminal charges and law enforcement convinces the CI to “work off” their criminal charges. In other words, the police claim that your charge will be lessened or maybe even go away if you work as a snitch for the police. The police can use information gained from the CI about you that the Government can use when prosecuting your case.

2. What do confidential informants do?

CI’s are regular folks that provide law enforcement with confidential, possibly damning, information against you. The Confidential Informant may be a drug dealer, a significant other, someone you are friends with, someone that works for you, someone that you work for, etc. The CI may be charged with a serious drug (or other) criminal offense. The CI is assigned a CI number and agrees to provide information about your case to the police.

The CI may do “controlled buys.” This means that the CI will have an agreement with the police. The CI will contact you or maybe you contact the CI. The CI knows he/she is working as a snitch, but you do not. You order drugs from the CI. The CI meets you at a certain place and unknown to you, the police are watching the whole deal. You may not see or notice the police. Typically the police are in plain clothes in an undercover vehicle.. All of this is a disguise so that you cannot know the police are watching.

The CI may be wearing a wire or recording device. The recording devices used have become very sophisticated and are virtually undetectable. It is not like the old school movies where you can see a “wire” taped under someone’s shirt. The equipment has evolved with technology and the cameras can be as simple as a pair of glasses, a keychain, a button on a shirt, etc. And the devices are constantly evolving and improving. There may be cameras in the location that the deal takes place.

The CI is searched before and after the deal by the police. The CI will likely be paying with marked money. You will not be able to notice the marks. The money may not even be marked, but the police have made a copy of the serial numbers on the cash bills. Once you sell to the CI, you are busted/arrested by the police (typically undercover federal or state agents and/or other law enforcement). Sometimes the police will even arrest the CI to make the whole operation look like the CI wasn’t working as a snitch. The CI is not really taken to jail or if the CI is taken to jail, the CI is released later. The CI may be working several buy busts before the CI’s work is finished with the police.

If you are working as a CI, you may be wondering, how many buys are “enough” to work off my charges? This is a common issue people face when working as CI’s. Law enforcement may keep threatening jail or charges unless you work “one more deal” for them. The problem is that there is no one to police the police. It is up to the police to decide how many deals you do, regardless of whether you have safety concerns or feel that the work you have already done is enough for the Government. The agent may be calling you at odd hours and making unreasonable requests that put you or your loved ones in danger. You may feel you are being watched. You may feel trapped by serving as a Government informant.

This is the point in time some potential clients reach out to a criminal defense lawyer for advice. A lawyer may be able to communicate with the agent to notify the agent you no longer wish to work as a snitch, or at least get an idea of how many more times the agent expects you to work. A lawyer may be able to get at least an end in sight and put a final date or final buy of this nightmare you signed up for. You may have signed up to be a CI under duress or felt forced into it after the police threatened to lock you up for the rest of your life or arrest other family members involved with drug activity. You may not have enough time to talk to a lawyer about what your options are before deciding whether you want to be a government snitch. This important decision can affect you the rest of your life… and possibly even your loved ones or friends.

3. How does a confidential informant work?

The CI may be required to testify in a trial of the person they are snitching on. But that is the sobering truth of being a CI. You can be called as a witness to testify on the government’s behalf if the person you snitched on requests a jury trial. A common myth that is absolutely not true is that confidential informants do not testify in trials. This is very wrong and a misconception.

4. Can a confidential informant hurt my case?

Absolutely. A confidential informant’s information can possibly be used against you for your arrest and later in your trial if you request a jury trial. The reason for this is the police use the CI to gain probable cause for your arrest.

5. Do confidential informants get their charges dropped?

It depends. If the CI works enough drug deals and/or provides enough information to the police that leads to a conviction or arrest, the prosecutor decides whether the charges will be dropped or lessened to a plea agreement for the CI. The CI must provide 100% honest information. If law enforcement learns otherwise, all deals or hopes of deals could be off between the Government and the CI.

Law Enforcement may have some input on whether the charges are dropped or lessened, but the prosecutor has the final say. Thus, when police make promises that a CI’s charges will be dropped or that a CI will not have to testify, don’t believe this… sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not. Just think – if the police say your charge will be dismissed if you work as a CI and later on your charges are not dropped… Who are you going to complain to? No one. You can’t enforce these agreements or conversations. The police have the upper hand on CI’s. In the end the police are working for the government and you are left holding the bag.

6. Do confidential informants get paid?

Yes, in some circumstances the police will pay a person to be a CI. Believe it or not — it is legal for law enforcement to pay a government snitch! Even with the promise of payment, the decision to become a CI is very dangerous. People who are arrested because you are a CI can put your life and the life of your loved ones in danger. Whatever the amount of money that may be offered in exchange for you becoming a CI may not be worth you and your loved ones being put in danger. This decision can affect you and others for the rest of your life.

7. Are confidential informants public record?

No, the identity of informants are not public record. If CI’s were public record, it would put their lives in danger and the lives of their loved ones. However, the identity of a confidential informant will be revealed to the Defendant if the Defendant goes to trial. There may be other reasons why the identity of the CI will be revealed. In general, the Government goes to great lengths to not reveal the identity of snitches.

It should be noted as well that it is very risky and dangerous to put out on social media or in the rumor mill that someone is working as a CI. The government could decide to charge someone who does that with obstruction of justice, among other things.

There is case law that the defense attorney can argue about disclosing the identity of tipsters versus active participants in criminal cases that involve CI’s. The identity of the CI can be necessary to a Defendant’s defense in their criminal case. Additionally, the defense can ask the CI that testifies whether they have been offered a plea deal or to drop their charges in exchange for the CI’s testimony at trial. And the CI must answer the question truthfully or else possibly face sanctions in court. Because of this, the Government often doesn’t give CI’s a break in their case or dismiss the case until the CI has testified truthfully at trial.

8. Are confidential informants protected?

Confidential Informants can never be 100% protected by the Government or anyone else. Being a CI is a very dangerous, risky endeavor. Anyone considering being a CI should first talk to a criminal defense attorney. You don’t even have to hire the attorney, but this type of advice and this decision could affect you the rest of your life.

Some people have heard of the witness protection program in movies or TV shows. But this is nearly non-existent in state cases and rare, at best, in federal cases. Once the government uses you as a CI, they can be done with you. There is no obligation from the Government to protect you the rest of your life because you served as a CI. The government does not have the resources or time to do this. This is yet one more reason why being a CI is dangerous and risky to you and your loved ones.

9. Do confidential informants have to testify in court?

Possibly, yes. If you are testifying at trial as a CI, you need an attorney that knows criminal procedure and has experience representing CI’s. If you are the defendant in a trial where a CI is testifying, you could also benefit from having a defense attorney advise you. The state will do it’s best to not reveal the identity of the CI. Your attorney could fight for you during any pretrial motions on whether the identity of the CI will be revealed or called as a witness. If the CI does testify at your trial, your attorney will have the opportunity to cross examine the CI and ask questions about any deals the CI made with the state.

10. What if a confidential informant doesn’t show up to court to testify?

It could cause real problems for the prosecution, but doesn’t necessarily mean a win for you. It all depends on the facts of your case. If the CI doesn’t testify against you but the State uses the evidence from the CI against you, your attorney would need to know how to argue against the admissibility of this information.

Considering being a CI? Is a CI involved in the case against you?

Confidential informants are part of the sketchy dark underworld of undercover police and government agencies. The government can get so preoccupied with making a case that the safety and welfare of a CI is not a priority. An attorney may help you weigh your options.

Contact Susan Williams today for a free consultation.

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