Use of informants in criminal investigation


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Consent to a Search. Consent to Home Searches. Car Searches. Searches Incident to Arrest. At the same time, because jailhouse informants are under the control of jail officials, there are many benefits and incentives for which they can exchange information, including food, cigarettes, visiting privileges, phone access, and cell assignments. Simply being in jail incentivizes informants to come up with information and educates them about how to do so.

Exclusive: FBI allowed informants to commit 5, crimes

Prisoners learn from law enforcement and from other prisoners a wide range of practices and expectations about how to be a jailhouse snitch. The jail experience also teaches detainees that the government will often confer benefits in exchange for information even when no express promises have been made and no express instructions have been given. In Los Angeles, for example, an extensive jailhouse snitch scandal led to a grand jury investigation into informant abuses in the county jail. The grand jury found that informant prisoners understood that being moved to a cell next to a defendant was an implicit instruction from the government to elicit information from that defendant, even if no government official expressly said so.

Prisoners also learn that their testimony is more valuable to the government if they can state they have not received or been promised a benefit.

Police Informants - Can They Commit Crimes And Not Get Charged

These lessons reinforce to informants the value of being entrepreneurial and going after targets without express government direction. As a result of this jailhouse informant culture, law enforcement officials will often not need to instruct informants to collect or fabricate evidence because the culture will already have done so.

This arrangement effectively permits an end-run around the Constitution. A defendant who has been charged with a crime has the constitutional right to counsel. In Massiah v. United States , the Supreme Court explained that the government cannot use informants to deliberately elicit information from such defendants without their lawyer present. Informants who collect information on their own, by contrast, are not considered government agents and therefore do not fall under the prohibition.

Entrepreneurial informants can truthfully state that no government actor instructed them to collect information about a defendant, even though they received implicit encouragement to do so. Likewise, many jailhouse informants can truthfully state to the jury that they have not received or been promised any benefit, even though realistically they expect to and will be compensated for their testimony. Ironically, jurors will often be the only people in the courtroom who do not understand this arrangement. Sometimes law enforcement officials simply ignore the law.

Orange County, California, is reeling from an enormous and debilitating jailhouse snitch scandal in which sheriffs and district attorneys used informants for decades to extract information from inmates. In Detroit during the s, police ran a snitch ring on the ninth floor of the jail, offering leniency and other benefits to prisoners if they would testify against others. Hundreds of people were convicted as a result.


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These scandals reveal how jailhouse informants have become a deeply troubling feature of American criminal justice culture. Partin was in a Louisiana jail facing numerous charges, including embezzlement, manslaughter, and perjury, when he cut a deal with the federal government. He was released, charges were dropped, and he and his wife were paid. In other words, people assume the risk that their friends, family members, and colleagues might be snitches. Jailhouse informants also provide a loophole in Miranda doctrine, which requires that suspects be informed of their rights before they can be held and interrogated by police.

In , the government placed an undercover police agent in a jail cell with Lloyd Perkins. This rule means that jailhouse informants can interrogate suspects on behalf of the government in ways that police are forbidden from doing without Miranda warnings. Even if informants can extract information in entrepreneurial ways, they are not supposed to threaten their cellmates. In Arizona v. Fulminante , a jailhouse informant scared his cellmate into confessing. But it still happens. In the Orange County scandal, the government used violent gang members as informants who threatened other prisoners to get them to confess.

Perhaps the best-known problem with jailhouse informants is their unreliability.

Statement Regarding Use of Confidential Informants During Major Protests NR19199dm

Bruce Lisker , for example, was wrongfully convicted of murdering his mother, based on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch. He was exonerated in after serving 24 years in prison. Thomas Goldstein served over 20 years for a murder he did not commit, based on the fabricated testimony of an experienced jailhouse informant named Edward Fink. As a result of the Los Angeles jailhouse snitch scandal, hundreds of convictions were overturned. Large-scale studies confirm that wrongful convictions are a common result of informant use.

Prosecutors often rely heavily on informants. This is especially true in drug enforcement, where it is often quipped that every drug case involves a snitch. You like him. Once you become chummy with your cooperator, there is a real danger that you lose your objectivity. Once prosecutors decide to use an unreliable informant in a case, it becomes difficult to change course.

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