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The Use of Informants and Cooperating Witnesses in Federal Cases

March 21, 2024 Uncategorized

The Use of Informants and Cooperating Witnesses in Federal Cases

Informants and cooperating witnesses are super common tools used by federal agencies like the FBI, DEA, and ATF to investigate and prosecute federal crimes. An informant is someone who gives info about criminal stuff to the cops in exchange for money, getting charges dropped, or other perks. A cooperating witness is someone involved in crime who agrees to snitch on others to get a plea deal or something from the prosecutors. Using informants and cooperating witnesses can be controversial, but they also provide key evidence and testimony that lets cops take down criminal networks.

How Informants and Cooperating Witnesses Help Investigations

Informants and cooperating witnesses give inside information to federal agents and prosecutors that would be impossible to get any other way. The kind of help they provide includes:

  • Giving tips and leads about criminal activity
  • Wearing a wire or recording convos with suspects
  • Making controlled buys of drugs or other illegal stuff
  • Testifying to grand juries
  • Providing info to get search warrants
  • Testifying at trial against partners in crime

In big investigations of organized crime, terrorism, drug trafficking, and corruption, informants and cooperating witnesses are often crucial for agents to infiltrate tight-knit criminal networks. Their information and testimony can implicate high-level criminals who keep their hands clean.

Why Informants and Cooperating Witnesses Help Out

Informants work with the cops for different reasons, including:

  • Money – Informants get paid for info, expenses, or investigative work.
  • Lighter Charges – Informants may cooperate to get their own charges dropped or reduced.
  • Revenge – Some informants snitch to get back at criminal associates.
  • Civic Duty – Some informants provide tips because they want criminals off the streets.
  • Coercion – Cops may threaten charges to pressure people into being informants.

Cooperating witnesses have extra reasons to testify for the government:

  • Reduced or dismissed charges through a plea deal.
  • Entering witness protection to get a new identity.
  • Avoiding long mandatory minimum sentences.

Why Cops Use Informants and Cooperating Witnesses

Despite ethical issues, law enforcement defends using informants and cooperating witnesses because of the major investigative benefits like:

  • Infiltrating organized crime groups, gangs, and terrorist cells.
  • Getting insider testimony to convict crime bosses.
  • Dismantling entire criminal networks.
  • Seizing drugs, weapons, and criminal assets.
  • Preventing violence and terrorism.

Cooperating witnesses especially provide critical eyewitness testimony needed to convict other conspirators. Juries often find cooperators more credible than paid informants.

Ethical Problems and Controversies

But using informants and cooperating witnesses also raises ethical issues like:

  • Informants may lie or fake evidence to get paid.
  • Cops overlook criminal activity by informants.
  • Threatening charges coerces cooperation.
  • Sentence deals incentivize cooperators to lie.
  • Reliance on informants makes investigations sloppy.
  • Letting some criminals avoid punishment seems unfair.

These concerns have led to calls for stricter regulations and oversight of informants and cooperators. But others argue these techniques are justified to fight organized crime and terrorism.

FBI Informant Guidelines

The FBI has guidelines for informants added after past problems. Current rules require weighing risks of illegal activity or due process violations by informants. Agents can’t explicitly or implicitly threaten potential informants. FBI agents must explain why an informant is needed and get supervisor approval. But critics say the guidelines still give agents too much discretion.

Plea Deals for Cooperating Witnesses

Federal prosecutors have broad power to offer plea deals for cooperation and determine sentencing reductions. Judges usually OK deals prosecutors negotiate. Some reformers argue prosecutors have too much unilateral power to reduce sentences through cooperation deals. They argue prosecutors should have to justify big sentence reductions to judges. Some also advocate limits on sentence reductions or deals for certain offenders. But prosecutors say cooperation deals are evaluated carefully case-by-case and judicial oversight could scare off witnesses.

Jailhouse Informants

Another controversial technique is jailhouse informants who claim defendants confessed to them. While this testimony can provide critical evidence, sometimes jailhouse informants fabricate confessions. Some critics argue prosecutors ignore credibility problems with jailhouse informants to win convictions.

There have been efforts to reform jailhouse informant laws like requiring reliability hearings. The Los Angeles DA’s Office also issued policies making prosecutors closely evaluate credibility before using a jailhouse informant. But many argue more reforms are still needed to prevent unreliable jailhouse informant testimony.

Oversight and Accountability

To address ethical issues, many argue for more oversight and accountability for handling informants and cooperators, like:

    • Requiring high-level approval to grant big benefits to informants or cooperators.
    • Internal audits and reviews of informant practices.
    • More data collection and public reporting on informants and plea deals.

There have been calls for law enforcement agencies to improve data collection and public reporting regarding their use of informants and cooperating witnesses. Many critics argue that without better data, it is difficult to conduct oversight or fully understand the scope of informant and cooperator practices.

For example, a 2004 DOJ Office of the Inspector General report found shortcomings in the FBI’s data collection on confidential informants. The report recommended the FBI implement a centralized informant database to improve documentation, tracking, and oversight. However, the FBI has resisted broader public reporting about details of its informant program.

Some specific recommendations for enhanced data collection include:

      • Mandatory reporting by law enforcement on the number of active informants and cooperators, payments, benefits conferred, and outcomes.
      • Collecting demographic data on informants.
      • Tracking informant involvement in unauthorized illegal activity.
      • Surveys of informant experiences and perceptions of coercion.

Proponents argue more comprehensive data would allow better risk assessment, identify concerning trends, and promote public confidence. But critics counter that extensive reporting requirements could deter sources from cooperating and reveal sensitive information.

There are also calls for more transparency regarding the use of cooperating witnesses in plea deals. Reform advocates argue prosecutors should publicly release data on the number and details of cooperation agreements to improve accountability.

In general, many experts argue that enhanced data collection and reporting – with appropriate protections for confidentiality – is critical to shed more light on the scale and impacts of the criminal informant system.

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