How Federal Defense Lawyers Challenge Informants and Snitches

How Federal Defense Lawyers Challenge Informants and Snitches

Informants, also known as confidential informants or snitches, are often key witnesses for federal prosecutors in criminal cases. However, their testimony comes with major credibility issues that defense attorneys can exploit. Here’s an overview of how federal defense lawyers work to challenge and discredit informant witnesses.

Understanding Informants in Federal Cases

Informants go by many names – confidential informants (CIs), cooperating witnesses, snitches, rats. They are defendants or suspects who agree to provide information to law enforcement in exchange for potential benefits, like reduced charges or sentences.In federal cases involving organized crime, drug trafficking, terrorism, and public corruption, informants are commonly used by agencies like the FBI, DEA, and ATF. Prosecutors may rely heavily on informant testimony to build their case, even when there is little other evidence.However, informants are not considered the most credible witnesses. They have strong incentives to fabricate information against the defendant in order to receive rewards from the government. A skilled federal defense lawyer will work to expose these motives and incentives on cross-examination.

Common Defense Strategies Against Informants

There are various approaches defense attorneys can take to challenge jailhouse informant testimony:

Attack the Informant’s Credibility

A top priority is undermining the informant’s credibility by exposing their background. The defense will dig into the informant’s criminal history and dishonest acts they’ve committed in the past. This can suggest they are unreliable and willing to lie to benefit themselves.The attorney may also highlight inconsistencies in the informant’s story compared to other evidence or past statements. Another tactic is revealing if the informant has falsely testified or fabricated confessions in other cases. This can establish a pattern of deception.

Question the Informant’s Incentives

The defense will emphasize the strong incentives the informant has to fabricate testimony against the defendant. This includes highlighting any compensation, rewards, or benefits the informant received or expects from the government in exchange for cooperating.Even if no explicit promises were made, the informant likely assumes their cooperation will be rewarded down the line. The defense argues this gives them a motive to lie and tell prosecutors what they want to hear.

Challenge the Informant’s Access and Opportunity

For the informant’s testimony to be credible, they need to have had sufficient access to the defendant to hear the incriminating statements they claim were made. The defense attorney will closely examine if the informant realistically could have interacted with the defendant before reporting the confession.If the informant was never housed with the defendant in jail, for example, their alleged jailhouse confession would be dubious. Impeaching the informant’s access helps undermine their account.

Allege Coaching by Prosecutors

Skilled defense lawyers will explore whether the informant was coached by prosecutors on what to say. If evidence suggests the informant was told specific details about the crime or defendant before “coming forward”, it indicates their testimony was pre-planned rather than based on a real confession.Attorneys may also argue the informant had access to the defendant’s case file and other privileged information that could help fabricate false testimony.

Present Experts on Informant Unreliability

Some courts allow the defense to call expert witnesses to testify about the inherent unreliability of jailhouse informants. These experts can cite statistics and psychology research showing informants frequently fabricate confessions to gain rewards. This helps contextualize why the jury should be skeptical.

Seek Exclusion of the Testimony

In some circumstances, defense counsel may argue the informant’s testimony is so unreliable it should be excluded entirely and deemed inadmissible. For example, if the informant was acting as a government agent to deliberately elicit information without Miranda warnings. Or if their story has changed so drastically it is patently false.

Advise the Client Not to Testify

If the prosecution’s case hinges mainly on a shaky informant, the defense may recommend the defendant not testify. This avoids opening the door to cross-examination and preserves the focus on discrediting the informant’s account. The jury may have reasonable doubt if the informant is all the government has.

Why Informant Testimony is Unreliable

There are inherent reasons why testimony from criminal informants should be viewed skeptically, which the defense highlights:

  • Incentives to Lie. Informants have strong incentives to provide false or embellished testimony against the defendant in order to gain rewards and benefits for themselves.
  • Criminal History. Many informants have extensive criminal backgrounds, past lies and frauds that compromise their veracity.
  • Evasion of Prosecution. Informants may fabricate confessions to avoid prosecution for their own crimes and divert law enforcement attention onto others.
  • Vengeful Motives. Some informants testify falsely out of vengeance or grudges against the defendant rather than a pursuit of truth.
  • Mental Illness. Studies show many informants suffer from mental illnesses that impact memory and perception. This calls into question the accuracy of their claims.
  • Suggestibility. Informants eager to please prosecutors may have been swayed by leading questions, unintentional cues, or assumptions of guilt.
  • Lack Corroboration. Jailhouse confessions are often uncorroborated by any other evidence and rely wholly on the informant’s word.
  • Perjury. Threats of prosecution for perjury are not a strong deterrent for informants who are already facing serious charges with long sentences.
  • Difficult Verification. It is very challenging to definitively verify whether an informant is telling the truth about a confession or fabricated the story. Their testimony often cannot be confirmed.

Defense attorneys emphasize these factors to create doubt around informants as credible witnesses. While informants play a key role in many federal cases, their problematic nature as witnesses makes them vulnerable on cross-examination.


Informants incentivized by rewards and benefits present major credibility issues in federal criminal trials. Skilled defense lawyers understand how to strategically undermine and discredit informant testimony by exposing their motives, inconsistencies, background, and lack of veracity. Robustly challenging the credibility of informants can create the reasonable doubt necessary for an acquittal.