Informants are used often in organized crime cases. There are four types of informant: a member of the public, a victim of a crime, a member of an organized criminal group or police officers themselves. Informants are also referred to as "justice collaborators" or they may be known as "cooperating witnesses" (UNODC, 2008).
Most informants are criminals who cooperate with the police in exchange for a reduced charge, sentence, or immunity from prosecution, depending on the judicial system. In some cases, however, honest citizens simply wish to report wrongdoings. Whatever the case, informants often desire to remain anonymous. Many courts have held that the identity of an informant can be kept confidential, but this not universal. In some jurisdictions, if the defendant can demonstrate that it is relevant to the case, the informant's identity may be revealed (Brown, 1985; Feuer, 2001; Schreiber, 2001).
Informants are cost-effective because they involve little expense. In most cases, they are cooperating for leniency in their own pending case. Because informants often have inside information, they can be helpful in building cases that would otherwise require months of investigation.
There is a well-documented stream of organized crime figures who have become informants. This change from membership in an organized criminal group to informing on the group can be explained by three relevant factors (Jacobs, 1994):
Very long sentences for many organized crime related offences force criminals to consider prison as the permanent solution and the place where they will remain until the end of their lives, rather than as merely a temporary cost of doing business.
Witness protection possibilities (discussed in Module 9) allow a potential informant a path to avoid retaliation after testifying against an organized criminal group.
The easiest way out: Many organized crime offenders are simply in it for the money, and when caught, they look for the easiest way out, regardless of whether friends or associates might suffer as a result.
The cost-benefit of informants is diminished to some extent by issues of credibility. In legal systems making use of juries, for instance, acquittals have occurred in major organized crime cases because juries simply did not believe the testimony of informants. This can be the case when the government has paid the informant which occurs in some jurisdictions. In the cases involving informants who were not part of an organized criminal group, there is also the fear that their identities will eventually become known (Simons, 2003; Werner, 2014).
The low cost of informants, and their ability to provide information more quickly and, in some cases, at lower risk than undercover investigations or electronic surveillance, suggests they will remain an important investigative tool in organized crime cases. Article 26 of the Organized Crime Convention identifies four distinct categories of information that could be collected from informants:
There are some central themes in relation to how informants/justice collaborators/cooperating witnesses are managed (UNODC, 2016).
These questions make us reflect on the need to strike a proper balance between the need to administer justice while investigating a case of suspected organized crime and the fair treatment of witnesses/informants as well as defendants.