On our first day as a young Manhattan ADA, we were assigned to the office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for NYC. The purpose of Special Narcotics is to investigate and take down large-scale drug trafficking across the city. There were two parts to the office — the Special Investigations Bureau did tons of wiretaps, and was staffed by experienced prosecutors; the Trial Bureaus handled mostly street-level arrests, tons of them, in the hopes that some of those defendants would “flip” and provide information that could lead to a long-term investigation. We were assigned to a trial bureau.
We had competing feelings, at first. On the one hand, we were all gung-ho to do whatever small part we could, and were frankly itching to start trying cases. On the other hand, we were not at all eager to use informants. “Rats,” we believed, were not merely distasteful and disloyal, but were of dubious actual value. We were told in no uncertain terms that, if we weren’t going to use informants, then there was no way we’d ever be able to develop a big case.
(And just to be clear, by “informants” we don’t mean mere witnesses to a crime. We’re talking about defendants who are trying to get a more lenient sentence by helping to convict someone else.)
We spent the next five years in Special Narcotics, and sure enough dealt with more informants than we can count. Then we moved up to the Rackets Bureau of the Manhattan DA’s office, where we continued to develop and use informants for another five years. And though we were no George Smiley, we still got pretty good at it.
And sure enough, what they’d told us back on Day 1 was the truth: We never saw a case of any size that didn’t get started because of an informant. An informant is truly a prerequisite.
But at the same time, our gut feeling on Day 1 had also been correct: The vast majority of potential informants have zero value. We can’t imagine how many NYPD resources and sleepless ADA nights have been wasted dealing with useless informants, drafting and executing worthless search warrants, and running fruitless investigations.
These days, we’re on the defense side, and we simply don’t represent informants. If a defendant wants to flip, that’s their business, but they can find someone else to represent them. We like to think our job is to keep people out of jail, not to help the prosecution put someone else in jail.
Now that’s just us. There are plenty of decent and honorable defense attorneys who represent informants. We’re not disparaging them in any way. It’s just our own personal preference not to do so ourselves.
And that’s not to say we won’t have clients who cooperate, especially in federal white-collar cases. Cooperation doesn’t need to mean informing on others or trying to get someone else in trouble. There are all kinds of ways for a corporation or executive to cooperate with an investigation without being a rat or a turncoat.
So did we learn anything in all those years of developing and handling informants? Sure. More than enough to write a book or two, and certainly too much to set down in a blog post. But we don’t mind jotting down a few cautions that might be useful to our readers who might be working with or representing informants. (Defense counsel representing an informant has similar interests to those of the prosecutor — the informant only gets rewarded for results, so allowing him to screw the case is not in the client’s best interest.)
So here are a few things to be wary of:
* If it sounds too good to be true, it isn’t. The more kilos your informant claims to have seen inside that apartment, the more likely it is to house an elderly priest who’ll die of a heart attack when his door gets busted down. A street-level numbers runner who claims to have information about the leaders of an O.C. family is probably little more than a wannabe.
* Desperate people take desperate measures. Plenty of defendants would love dearly to be able to provide useful information, but unfortunately they don’t know any real crooks. At least none that they’re willing to inform on. It’s a sad truth that informants only get rewarded for results, not for efforts. So one frequently comes across the would-be informant who winds up trying to entrap friends and acquaintances into committing crimes. You run a serious risk of being duped yourself, and being party to that entrapment, if you’re not careful.
* Desperate people take even more desperate measures. Forget entrapment. Sometimes the would-be informant outright lies. Now your own integrity is at stake. So if a target letter went out, or an arrest has been made, be especially receptive to vociferous claims of innocence.
* An informant is never reliable. His information may be, on a given day, but he himself never is. He is an informant precisely because he is a criminal who is willing to sell out his friends and family. He is an informant in order to manipulate the system to his benefit. He is just as capable of manipulating you, and rest assured that is precisely what he’s trying to do.
* Watch out for an “informant” who is the actual culprit. Or who is a big fish trying to sell smaller fry.
* Ferret out whether the cops have made any promises on the side. Or worse yet, made payments or benefits to the informant beyond the scope of the deal. It’s a credibility-killer, especially if it comes out for the first time during testimony at trial.
* Nobody wants to make themselves look bad. So informants always, always hold back. Right about the time you think you’ve got the full story out of them, that’s where you need to presume there’s something serious they’ve held back that’s going to cause problems down the line.
* If it’s uncorroborated, presume it ain’t true. The best corroboration is physical evidence, photographs, and other non-testimonial items.
* Informants readily believe that law enforcement needs them, rather than the other way around. It does them no good to believe this. It should go without saying that the prosecutor should shut this attitude down at every opportunity. But the informant’s defense counsel should also make sure to hammer home that the informant is in charge of nothing in this relationship.
Finally, for the law-enforcement folks out there, do not rest your case on the informant. As soon as you can, drop the informant and build your case using other means. Ideally, you want a case where the informant never has to testify at all. Get the informant to introduce an undercover agent. Use the informant to get you started on a pen register or wiretap. Use the informant to launch physical surveillance or whatever. But get that informant out of the case as soon as possible.
That’s enough for one post. Time to stop before this turns into either a rant or a dissertation. We’ve got work to do.