What Is a Confidential Informant?
On behalf of Randall & Stump, PLLC in Criminal Defense on Tuesday, April 7, 2020
A confidential informant (CI) is an individual who gives information about on-going criminal activity to the police. Informants usually provide information in exchange for reduced charges or immunity, though CIs can be individuals facing no criminal charges themselves.
Both federal and state law enforcement officers use confidential informants. It is often a strategic method of gaining otherwise inaccessible information for a period of time, sometimes years. The CI is protected by confidentiality among law enforcement agents and the courts. This is known as the informer’s privilege—though it is not absolute.
If you are arrested for or accused of a crime, law enforcement agents or a prosecutor may approach you about becoming a confidential informant. We recommend you think carefully and talk with a Charlotte criminal lawyer before accepting this offer. Being a CI can be tough, dangerous work. It also does not mean you will escape criminal liability.
Confidential Informants v. Confidential Sources
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department differentiates between confidential sources and confidential informants.
A confidential source offers information regarding criminal activity once or infrequently. The person may or may not be reliable for the purposes of using the information in court.
A confidential informant provides information about criminal activity on an on-going basis, which can lead to police action such as an arrest, seizure of property, or a follow-up investigation. The CI’s information must be vetted and reliable, and the CI can provide information in exchange for lawful consideration (like dropped or reduced charges) or money.
The Vice and Narcotics Squad complete confidential CI packets. These confidential files include all of the information CIs gives to the police, whether accurate or inaccurate. This file designates whether a CI is active, inactive, or terminated.
The CMPD also requires informants to sign a code of conduct, acknowledging the agreement to cooperate with the police.
Becoming a Confidential Informant
If someone, whether a police officer or prosecutor, approaches you about becoming a CI, we highly recommend retaining an attorney immediately. Being an informant is not usually a one-time occurrence. It is a continuous relationship with a law enforcement agency. You need to know what is expected of you,for how long you will be expected to provide information, and ensure that you are given credit for any information you provide which leads to an arrest of other individuals, typically referred to as “targets”.
A lawyer will help you define what kind of information and details the police are looking for. The police and prosecutors will need information that is credible and actionable. They want information they can use to gain an indictment, arrest, and conviction in court. You need to find out how often the police are looking to be kept apprised of a criminal situation, as well as how you will be required to pass along information.
Your attorney also will review the police department or other law enforcement agency’s confidential informant guidelines to ensure the officer offering you a CI position is acting within regulations. For example, the CMPD has its own confidential informant guidelines.
Another aspect of becoming a CI is learning what you can and cannot do. Informing the police on criminal activity does not make you immune from future charges. Do not assume that if you become a CI that this will give you the freedom to break the law.
How Will Becoming a CI Impact Criminal Charges?
Before agreeing to become a CI, you must understand exactly how it will impact any current criminal charges or allegations. There usually is a trade-off. You agree to become an informant in exchange for a favorable resolution in your criminal case.
A prosecutor may agree to terms such as:
- Dismissing some or all of the criminal charges against you;
- Reducing one or more charges;
- Not seeking an active term of imprisonment.
Never assume that all of the charges against you will be dropped because you agree to become a CI. In fact, the police and prosecutors may need you to be convicted of a crime to ensure you retain your relationship or reputation with those involved in the criminal enterprise.
Consider Your Safety Before Becoming a CI
Becoming a CI is voluntary. Though you may feel a great deal of pressure to agree to the arrangement, you do not have to. And before you agree to become an informant to improve your circumstances, consider how the arrangement may impact your and your loved one’s safety.
Criminal informants are most often used when law enforcement agencies are attempting to gain information about a large, on-going criminal enterprise, such as a gang, drug smuggling ring, or human trafficking operation. Informing on the members and higher-ups in the criminal organization may place you in danger if you are found out.
When Can Your Identity be Revealed in Court?
When you act as a CI in North Carolina, you are protected by the informer’s privilege, outlined in North Carolina Statute §15A-904. This privilege keeps your identity secret throughout the police investigation and court case. However, you do not get to invoke this privilege—the prosecutor does. It is the State’s right to keep your identity secret as long as it can, and there are circumstances in which the law requires the State to disclose your name.
Your identity as a CI can normally remain a secret during a criminal case. However, the State may have to disclose your name when doing so is relevant and helpful to the defense or is essential to obtaining a fair outcome in the case.
It is the defendant’s burden to show your name should be disclosed. Factors that help a defendant meet their burden include:
- You were a participant in the crime;
- The State’s evidence conflicts with the defendant’s evidence, and you could provide clarification; and
- You are likely a State witness at trial.
To prevent your name from being disclosed, the prosecutor may argue that you merely provided tips, there is no conflict you could clarify, disclosure of your identity would be dangerous, or there is substantial evidence separate from what you provided that establishes guilt.
The judge will weigh the facts and circumstances against each other before deciding whether a CI’s identity should remain confidential or be disclosed during discovery.
Call Randall & Stump, PLLC to Discuss Criminal Informants
If you are approached by a criminal informant, or you have learned a criminal informant is responsible for the charges against you, contact our Charlotte criminal defense attorneys right away. Our team at Randall & Stump, PLLC are experienced in advising defendants on whether or not to become CIs. We look at the totality of the circumstances and advise you of the advantages and disadvantages of the arrangement.
If you believe an informant’s inaccurate or outright false information led to your current charges, we can mount an aggressive defense, including seeking the identity of the informant.