California’s jailhouse informants may soon need to find a new source of income and benefits. The State Legislature just passed a bill prohibiting convictions in criminal cases which are based entirely upon the uncorroborated testimony of jailhouse informants. Governor Brown is expected to sign the bill into law in the near future.
Jailhouse informants are inmates in jail or prison who testify for the prosecution in criminal cases. They often do this in exchange for some sort of payment or other benefit. A benefit could include a lesser sentence in a criminal charge which the informant is facing him or herself.
Jailhouse informants have long been used as a tool by law enforcement to investigate crimes. Their tips and information are valuable because the information they receive is often from witnesses or perpetrators of crimes who are already in custody for other crimes. For a variety of reasons, inmates often speak more freely with their fellow inmates and often boast about their past crimes in order to gain respect or favor with other inmates while in custody.
Used by law enforcement as an investigative tool, inmate informants can be very helpful in solving crimes that would otherwise go unresolved. However, taken alone, jailhouse “snitches” as they are known can be the source of serious injustice. Again, jailhouse informants are motivated because they often receive a benefit for their testimony. They seek to get information while in jail that they can sell to law enforcement. The informant cares not about justice, rather they care only about their liberty and/or their wallets. Thus, it should be the job of the prosecution to evaluate the testimony of informants and investigate its authenticity. Corroboration of jailhouse informants is a necessity in order to avoid serious injustice.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley was one of the first prosecutors in California to seek to limit the testimony of jailhouse informants. In a recent interview, Cooley stated that the restricted use of jailhouse informants has not effected his ability to gain convictions in his prosecutions. And, although Cooley was quoted as saying “when the wrong person is prosecuted, the guilty go free”, I think that justice and prosecutorial ethics should cause prosecutors to strive to achieve a much higher goal. In order to achieve justice, no wrong person should ever be prosecuted, much less convicted. And, prosecutions based upon the testimony of jailhouse informants should be viewed with strict scrutiny and should be corroborated by other, more reliable sources.
If you have questions about jailhouse informants or any other criminal law issue you may contact me at: