From the time we are children we are programmed to despise snitches.
In schoolyards, tattlers and squealers lose the trust of their peers and earn a reputation nobody wants.
The attitudes don’t change much as we become adults.
But snitches play an important role in law enforcement.
They provide information, and that information often leads to justice.
I recently attended a police officer training session about the use of informants taught by Ebrahim Baytieh, a supervisor in the Orange County District Attorney’s Special Prosecutions Unit.
Ebrahim has been the lead prosecutor in some of Orange County’s most nefarious homicide cases and is a former California Prosecutor of the Year.
First off, Ebrahim said, not all informants are of dubious moral standing. Crime victims and witnesses typically provide information simply because they seek justice.
Then there is the so-called citizen informant — everyday people providing information about criminal activity. They may think their neighbors are dealing drugs, or have a tip about a criminal suspect.
Citizen informants bring a lot of crimes to the attention of law enforcement. But even with citizen informants, there can be questions about motivation. The criminal might be a relative who the informant wants out of his hair.
The next category is where things start to get tricky. These are the folks who are seeking some kind of compensation in exchange for information.
They conjure up the image of Judas Iscariot collecting 30 pieces of silver — one of the most despised characters in history.
Every time a reward is offered for information about a crime, police are soliciting information for money. Some naturally question the sincerity of anyone who comes forward with information in response to a reward.
Would they have provided the information without the money?
For those involved in criminal activity, the motivation is not always money.
They are looking for a deal.
Detectives often hear pleas from people they arrest, such as, “If I give you information about someone who is a ‘badder’ guy than I am, what can I get in return?”
This conversation often starts as soon as the person is handcuffed in the back of the patrol car.
Drug users routinely turn in drug dealers, thieves turn in fences and crooks turn in anyone they can think of to get consideration on any future sentence.
In the courtroom, codefendants routinely turn on each other to present themselves as less culpable.
In the pecking order of informants, at the lowest level is the jailhouse snitch. Even seasoned investigators are reluctant to use them. Unfortunately, sometimes it is the only way to find out what happened.
Detectives interview witnesses, collect and analyze forensic evidence and interrogate suspects.
But that’s not always enough.
The use of jailhouse informants is legal, with guidelines.
There are a number of court cases and even Penal Code sections that lay out the rules for how to manage and use informants.
For example, a jailhouse snitch can’t be paid more than $50 for information. It’s the law. I wonder if that’s been adjusted for inflation over the years?
There is another Penal Code section that requires victims of crimes to be notified of any possible deals with suspects in exchange for information.
Mr. Baytieh had some good takeaways for the officers attending the class.
“Informants are by nature unreliable and should be approached with caution,” he warned.
My feelings run a bit stronger. Don’t trust them, don’t ever be alone with them, try to independently verify everything they tell you — and, most importantly, they are not your friends. Informants can damage a prosecution, and, for detectives who don’t follow the rules, land them in trouble.
The use of informants should never supersede the legal requirement for fairness, Ebrahim told the detectives. Prosecutors and police officers must share everything with defense attorneys, he cautioned.
“Lazy investigators can use informants in a way that undermines fairness,” Ebrahim told the class. The use of informants should never replace of good old-fashioned police work.
It’s a challenging topic. On the one hand, victims’ families and the public want and deserve answers about what happened –– and sometimes, using informants is the only remaining option.
On the other hand, they complicate any case –– and defense attorneys will most definitely work hard to discredit them.
Complicating matters, recent headlines have made it clear that any missteps can have serious consequences.
I believe informants – even the jailhouse variety — remain an important tool, but they must not be misused or abused.
Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.