The trouble with police informants and sting operations
Police departments throughout Florida use confidential informants (CIs) as part of a strategy to enforce drug laws. But this system often means that the prosecution is using someone who has been arrested and is working with the police to avoid being charged with a crime.
Consequently, the informant is probably highly motivated to help get the subject of an investigation convicted. This inherent bias in the system of using criminal suspects as undercover informants can lead to unjust convictions.
5 factors in determining an informant’s credibility
Here are five factors that a judge may consider when the prosecution presents evidence from an informant in a drug crime case:
- Veracity. The judge may ask whether the CI has a reputation for being dishonest. A judge may consider whether the informant has lied to police and prosecutors in the past, or whether the informant has been convicted of crimes of dishonesty like fraud.
- Basis of knowledge. Before admitting the CI’s statements in court, the judge will likely require more than the CI’s word that something illegal happened. What is the basis of the CI’s supposed knowledge? Is it simply hearsay?
- Reliability. Along with showing that the CI is truthful, the prosecution may have to convince the judge that the person is reliable. If the CI has provided evidence in previous cases that resulted in convictions, that tends to support the idea that the CI is reliable.
- Corroboration. Prosecutors will try to prove a CI’s reliability by corroborating the CI’s information with observations by police officers or other parties.
- Degree of specificity. A CI’s information may be seen as more credible if it is detailed. For example, “I heard the defendant committed a crime somewhere” is not specific and thus not credible.
Criminal cases involving confidential informants raise many legal questions regarding the violation of defendants’ rights. To learn more about these mattes, please see our previous post, “Undercover ‘sting’ operations and violations of defendants’ rights.”