Criminal informants provide important information to the justice system, but they also pose serious risks. We hope this website will help attorneys, journalists, advocates, and families to better understand this vital area of public policy.
Criminal informants are famously unreliable. Jailhouse snitch testimony often leads to wrongful conviction. Over 45 percent of all innocent people exonerated from death sentences were wrongfully convicted based on the testimony of a lying criminal informant. This makes snitches the leading cause of wrongful conviction in U.S. capital cases.
Police sometimes use children as young as 14 as informants. These children may be exposed to drugs, violence, and other criminal activities as they work to get information for their handlers. Some have been killed. California and New Jersey have laws restricting the practice: in other states police have discretion to use juvenile informants.
Some informants are serious criminals who receive leniency for their own crimes. The FBI has been known to use murderers as informants. Many jurisdictions permit drug dealers to continue selling drugs in exchange for cooperation. In 2011, the crimes committed by FBI informants alone totaled over 5,600.
URBAN COMMUNITIES PAY THE PRICE
Informants are a staple of drug enforcement. This means that where drug enforcement is heaviest, informant activity is also heaviest. Because drug arrests occur disproportionately in low-income African American neighborhoods, those residents must live with the crime, violence, and distrust that go with criminal informant use.
Many states are rethinking their criminal informant policies. Some have passed laws restricting the use of jailhouse snitch witnesses. Some have created new rules for disclosure and accountability. The U.S. Congress is considering a number of reforms that would improve transparency and safety. In the future, the laws governing criminal informants will likely look very different than they do today.
Congressional hearing on informant use at ATF and DEA
Last week, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on April 4, 2017, in response to U.S. Department of Justice reports that ATF and DEA were mishandling their informants. Testimony was heard from DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz, DEA Acting Principal Deputy Administrator Robert Patterson, and ATF Associate Deputy Director Ronald Turk.
From the Committee's website:
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) continually refused to provide the Committee its new policy regarding the proper use of confidential informants (CIs). During the hearing, Chairman Chaffetz issued a subpoena to DEA for the documents.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’s (ATF) and DEA’s inadequate oversight over the CI program prevents the agencies from properly tracking and monitoring CIs.
Since 2012, ATF and DEA paid CIs almost $260 million, with payments largely determined by field agents who did not seek approval or review from headquarters.
The Department of Justice Office of Inspector General (DOJ OIG) found incomplete and inaccurate tracking of money or amounts paid to CIs at both agencies.
DOJ advised ATF Associate Deputy Director Turk not to appear and testify before the Committee’s hearing last month on the death of ICE Agent Jaime Zapata.