Investigations: Confidential Informants


Although anyone who provides information to the police (complainants, victims, witnesses, etc.) can technically be considered an informant, this article deals specifically with confidential informants (CI). For this article, a CI is a person formally registered with and compensated by the department for supplying information or performing a service, such as a controlled purchase of drugs.

Compensation may take the form of money and/or a reduced sentence for criminal behavior.

Woven through many of my previous articles on a variety of investigative subjects is my opinion that although the scientific tools available to today s investigator are invaluable, there is still no substitute for gathering information from the street. A police officer s ability to develop a case by using sources of information from people engaged in criminal behavior or living on the fringes of society is the bread and butter of detective work. Why? Because people living the life of the claw and fang have direct access and personal knowledge about people engaged in criminal behavior not normally available to the police.

The best of my detectives were born, raised and lived in the city, and while they may have had a unique ability to obtain information from life-long contacts, they still had to rely on CIs to obtain the type of detailed information needed to establish probable cause. Crime is conducted in secret by people who take steps to avoid detection.

The special challenges of drug investigations often rely on informant information, but CIs are also used in a wide variety of other criminal cases. For example, in larger cities such as New York or Detroit, locating a suspect after an arrest warrant is obtained isn t quite as easy as the average citizen may think. When we tell detectives to hit the streets to locate a suspect, what this really means is for them to contact their CIs to find out where the suspect is.

Developing CIs who can provide on-going information is a continuous process, but street prostitutes have always been fertile ground for detectives. The very nature of street prostitution requires the prostitute to operate in and on the fringes of a dark world as alien to the average citizen as the famous bar scene from the movie Star Wars. Even if a detective literally lives on the street, they can gain only limited access to those areas of the city that become a no-man s land after dark. This is the everyday work world for the street walker. So, if we want to know who robbed a convenience store, who is fencing stolen goods or where a particular suspect hangs out, developing prostitutes as CIs is routine detective work.

War Story

Delores and I went to high school together. She was on the cheerleading squad for the football team. We sat next to one another in several classes and became friends. A series of life events (e.g., an abusive father, an alcoholic mother, a divorce, etc.) led Delores down a different path. Many years passed, and we lost contact.

When I was assigned as a detective to the vice and narcotics division, one evening I participated in the usual roundup of prostitutes and recognized Delores with a group of other women in the police lockup. It turned out Delores was a stone-cold heroin addict. She walked the street every night offering herself in order to get enough cash for her next fix. Once a beautiful girl, she was now all skin and bones and suffered from a variety of sexually transmitted diseases.

In addition to prostitution, she was in possession of heroin when she was arrested. It wasn t her first arrest, and she was looking at doing some time. We became acquainted again, and I was able to convince a judge to offer her a methadone program instead of jail. She became one of my informants and provided information leading to many search warrants, arrests and convictions.

For several years I bailed Delores out of one jam after another. We had a quid pro quo relationship. She provided information about people much further up the crime ladder than she was, and I did my best to advocate for her.

Ultimately, someone strangled Delores and put her body in a dumpster behind a city-housing project. We never found her killer. It still bothers me.

Bottom line: This type of relationship between cop and informant is as old as time. Investigative effectiveness often hinges on how well detectives can recruit, maintain and motivate CIs to supply information.

Paying Confidential Informants

Federal and state agencies routinely offer money for information leading to the arrest and conviction of persons who have committed heinous crimes. It s also not unusual for prosecutors to recommend and judges to take into consideration the assistance rendered to the police by defendants as part of a plea negotiation. In fact, charges against a CI are often nolled or dropped entirely on the recommendation of the police because a little fish gave up a bigger fish. These are examples of utilitarianism making decisions based on a process balancing what the government thinks produces the greatest good for the most people.

Many departments allocate part of the police budget to what is often referred to as an undercover fund. Use of this fund by departmental personnel is either part of the policy and procedure on CIs or an entirely separate policy and procedure. Normally the commanding officer in charge of CI files is also responsible for managing and allocating monies in the undercover fund.

Although this fund often is used for a variety of purposes (e.g., emergency purchases of recording tapes for a wiretap), it s most often used to provide money to CIs to make supervised, controlled purchases of narcotics and/or to pay CIs for doing so in order to further a police investigation. Departments must use strict audit procedures to disperse and/or return money to the undercover fund.

Example: A detective makes out a departmental form requesting $50 and supplies the number and description of the case, such as on-going investigations into the sale of narcotics at 223 Main Street. The officer signs a receipt for the money and is given 48 hours for its use. The officer gives $30 to CI 4968 to make a controlled purchase of narcotics at 223 Main Street, and pays CI 4968 $20 for making the purchase. The officer documents this and places it in the file. The officer ultimately turns in the narcotics as evidence and for analysis, and receives a receipt. The officer submits a copy of the receipt along with a report indicating what the money was used for to the commanding officer in charge of CI files. If the case resulted in the obtainment of a search-and-seizure and/or an arrest warrant, the officer also includes this in the file, and it becomes part of the audit trail for disbursement of funds.

Often an outside auditor is hired to audit undercover funds, and the commander in charge of the fund conducts frequent inspections to ensure the money disbursed received a valid return (i.e., a search/arrest warrant).

Establishing Reliability

Search and seizure warrants are commonly issued based on information from confidential, reliable informants. Although laws vary considerably from state to state, the affiants applying for a search warrant must convince a judge that probable cause exists to believe a crime is being, has been or will occur; that the information in the warrant application is reliable, timely; that there is a fair probability that the premises or person searched will yield the items sought; and that the items are reasonably related to criminal activity.

With informants, officers usually accomplish this by corroborating the information supplied by the informant and establishing the credibility of the informant by past true information received from the informant, identifying the informant or informant declarations against their own penal interest. In Alabama v. White, the U.S. Supreme Court found that an anonymous tip can provide the foundation for reasonable suspicion when the tip predicts future activities that the officer is able to corroborate, which makes it reasonable to think that the informant has inside knowledge about the suspect.

Next issue: how to corroborate information and use it to apply for an arrest or search and seizure warrant.


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