Using Confidential Informants in Federal Criminal Investigations
An informant confidentially supplies information about alleged criminal activity to federal law enforcement agents. They are often called “rats” and “snitches” but frequently play a vital role in the federal criminal court process.
The Confidential Informant Guidelines allow the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) to authorize confidential informants to engage in activities considered crimes under state or federal law if somebody committed them without authorization.
However, authorizing a confidential informant (CI) to engage in otherwise illegal activity could increase their usefulness as a source of information to the government but might also have adverse consequences.
They are also often called “criminal informants” and are more commonly used than you think. For example, the confidential informant's criminal activity might hinder the prosecution of co-conspirators by providing a federal defense lawyer to argue entrapment.
Federal investigators have many technological tools they can use, but they frequently rely on information provided by other people. Federal agents will attempt to get someone close to a target suspect to give the government information that could lead to an arrest and prosecution.
To help ensure informants are reliable, some guidelines must be followed. For example, when federal agents review an informant's usefulness, they must assess their position within any organization related to the investigation, their relationship to the primary target, their motivation for providing information, and the extent to which the provided information can be confirmed.
Further, federal agents have to analyze a criminal informant's truthfulness, history of substance abuse, and whether they are related to any law enforcement official.
Criminal informants must be re-evaluated regularly to ensure they remain reliable.
Agents are not allowed to exchange gifts with an informant, and there are restrictions on the amount they are paid. While the use of criminal informants can lead to large-scale arrests, such as drug trafficking, they may be coerced into giving false information.
Confidential Informants - Explained
If you are under a federal criminal investigation or charged with a crime, you could face severe penalties if convicted. Federal law enforcement agents might allow you to avoid the most severe penalties by asking you to become a federal criminal confidential informant.
Typically, the motivation of a criminal informant is to provide helpful information in exchange for leniency in a criminal case pending against them. A CI is expected to provide federal agents with significant assistance in helping them make an arrest. Often, they are also expected to take a lead role in helping them collect evidence by:
- Wearing a “wire” or
- Engaging in “controlled buys” of illegal drugs.
The CI will often agree with federal agents to participate in a certain number of controlled drug buys, resulting in arrest in exchange for getting their criminal charges reduced or dismissed.
Notably, federal agents will not agree to use a CI just one time for a single arrest. Instead, criminal informants are usually asked to assist federal agents for months or years before they agree to help them with their case. Potential criminal informants often struggle to decide whether to cooperate with federal law enforcement agents.
AG's Guidelines for Using Confidential Informants
As noted, the United States Attorney General has guidelines regarding the use of confidential informants, which discuss the role of confidential informants in FBI investigations, along with the risks and rewards of their operation. The Confidential Informant Guidelines say the following:
- “A confidential informant or "CI" is "any individual who provides valuable and credible information to a Justice Law Enforcement Agency (JLEA) regarding felonious criminal activities from whom they expect to obtain additional valuable and credible information regarding such activities in the future.
- A confidential informant differs from "cooperating witnesses" or from people who agree to testify in legal proceedings and typically have written agreements with the Department of Justice (DOJ).
- The CI's written agreements spell out their obligations and expectations of future judicial or prospective consideration.
- Persons who provide information to the FBI but do not fall into one specific classification are generally called "sources of information."
- Confidential informants are often uniquely situated to assist the FBI in its most sensitive investigations and are often involved in criminal activities themselves. The FBI may recruit them because of their access and status, and, since they will not testify in court, usually can preserve their anonymity.”
Confidential Informants – Quick Facts
There are some essential facts you should know about confidential criminal information used by federal agents in criminal cases, such as the following:
- The exchange of helpful information for a promise of leniency is often the driving force behind confidential informants.
- Sometimes, federal agents might offer a deal for someone to act as a criminal informant.
- Severe federal penalties under the sentencing guidelines are often the primary factor why people agree to become an informant.
- There are pros and cons to becoming a federal informant.
- Anyone considering becoming an informant must first understand the benefits and risks and consult a federal criminal defense lawyer before making any decisions.
How Can You Become a Federal Criminal Informant?
Suppose you are arrested for a relatively minor federal offense and seeking ways to reduce or dismiss the charges. In that case, some first-time offenders might be offered an opportunity to work as a confidential informant in a plea agreement with the federal prosecutor.
Federal agents may make the offer during questioning and before charges have been filed. Notably, however, most people who become a criminal informant typically face a lengthy prison sentence for their charges. Every case is unique, and perhaps it's worth the perceived risks.
There are advantages and disadvantages which your lawyer can explain. Sometimes, federal law enforcement agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) will offer a suspect in a conspiracy offense a chance to become a confidential informant.
Agents are seeking information about others involved in the alleged criminal conspiracy. The offer to become an informant is usually made during initial questioning but could occur later.
What Are the Duties of an Informant?
A criminal informant in federal criminal cases often plays a pivotal role in the investigation process, such as assisting federal law enforcement agents in gathering evidence against co-conspirators or other suspects in crimes. Their duties include the following:
- Provide information that is used to arrest and prosecute others.
- To be an active participant in their federal criminal investigation.
- Assigned specific duties to perform as part of the agreement.
- Sometimes, wear a “wire” to record crucial information to federal agents.
- Sometimes, assist in several controlled drugs.
- Identify other suspects involved in criminal behavior to help prosecutors file criminal charges.
What are the Potential Benefits and Risks?
Becoming a federal criminal informant will include several possible benefits, such as the following:
- A chance of getting the criminal charges reduced or dismissed.
- Avoid the most severe penalties that can be imposed.
- Avoid incarceration in a federal prison.
- Keeping your criminal record clean.
- Expose large-scale fraudulent activity impacting countless victims.
There are also some possible risks of becoming a federal criminal informant, such as the following:
- Your identity might get leaked during the investigation.
- You could become a target of retaliation.
- Federal agents can't guarantee the safety of your family.
- Participating in controlled drug buys could be dangerous.
- You might not receive all the benefits you expected.
- Federal agents could “turn” on you if they believe you have not fulfilled the original agreement's terms.
- If you fail to complete your end of the agreement, the deal will be voided, and you will be charged and sentenced under the original case.
Before deciding whether to become an informant, consult an experienced federal criminal defense attorney to review your situation. Perhaps becoming a CI is in your best interest, but perhaps not.
Agreements with federal agents are often complex. It would be best to examine all possible benefits and risks closely. We know how to negotiate with federal prosecutors and federal law enforcement agents effectively. Contact us for a free case evaluation. The Hedding Law Firm has offices in Los Angeles, California.
- Federal Sentencing for RICO Act Violations
- Federal Criminal Gang Prosecutions
- Prosecuting Drug Activity Outside the United States
- Attorney General's Guidelines on Using Confidential Informants
- FBI’s Policy on the Use of Informants
- Confidential Informant
- DOJ Manual on Witness Security
- Target Letter from the Federal Government