Informants are those who covertly provide information about criminal activity to law enforcement officers. Some informants work for money, but most are people who’ve been caught engaging in criminal activity. In many cases, deals are made between an informant and the police, who refrain from charging a suspect they’ve caught, in return for information or undercover work (typically, buying or selling drugs). Standards for eligibility of informants as a source of confidential information varies by jurisdiction. Informants may be assessed based upon their criminal record, results of past informant activity, and motivations, among other factors. In some jurisdictions, a police officer is required to have personal knowledge of the informant’s reliability, based upon past performance and other factors, but the requirement may be satisfied if another officer working in connection with the officer has such knowledge.
Use of informants has sometimes led to controversy. For example, Philadelphia experienced a scandal in 1995 when massive corruption in Philadelphia's 39th Police District was exposed, including using fabricated informants to obtain warrants. Philadelphia Police Department Directive 15 sets forth specific guidelines for the use of confidential informants, including documentation of contacts with such informants and maintaining records on the reliability of those informants. However, the policy was not being enforced and supervision of the policy was lacking.
There are constitutional issues involved in the use of cellmate informants. For example, some courts have found that placing an informant as a cellmate constituted interrogation in violation of an inmate's right to counsel.
The following is a section of the Department of Justice guidelines for using informants:
1. Initial Suitability Determination
Prior to utilizing a person as a CI, a case agent of a JLEA shall complete and sign a written Initial Suitability Report and Recommendation, which shall be forwarded to a Field Manager for his or her written approval. In completing the Initial Suitability Report and Recommendation, the case agent must address the following factors (or indicate that a particular factor is not applicable):
- the person's age;
- the person's alien status;
- whether the person is a public official, law enforcement officer, union official, employee of a financial institution or school, member of the military services, a representative or affiliate of the media, or a party to, or in a position to be a party to, privileged communications (e.g., a member of the clergy, a physician, or a lawyer);
- the extent to which the person would make use of his or her affiliations with legitimate organizations in order to provide information or assistance to the JLEA, and the ability of the JLEA to ensure that the person's information or assistance is limited to criminal matters;
- the extent to which the person's information or assistance would be relevant to a present or potential investigation or prosecution and the importance of such investigation or prosecution;
- the nature of any relationship between the CI and the subject or target of an existing or potential investigation or prosecution, including but not limited to a current or former spousal relationship or other family tie, and any current or former employment or financial relationship;
- the person's motivation in providing information or assistance, including any consideration sought from the government for this assistance;
- the risk that the person might adversely affect a present or potential investigation or prosecution;
- the extent to which the person's information or assistance can be corroborated;
- the person's reliability and truthfulness;
- the person's prior record as a witness in any proceeding;
- whether the person has a criminal history, is reasonably believed to be the subject or target of a pending criminal investigation, is under arrest, or has been charged in a pending prosecution;
- whether the person is reasonably believed to pose a danger to the public or other criminal threat, or is reasonably believed to pose a risk of flight;
- whether the person is a substance abuser or has a history of substance abuse;
- whether the person is a relative of an employee of any law enforcement agency;
- the risk of physical harm that may occur to the person or his or her immediate family or close associates as a result of providing information or assistance to the JLEA; and
- the record of the JLEA and the record of any other law enforcement agency (if available to the JLEA) regarding the person's prior or current service as a CI, Cooperating Defendant/Witness, or Source of Information, including, but not limited to, any information regarding whether the person was at any time terminated for cause.