An informant is a person who provides information to another person or agency in order to receive favorable treatment or rewards. (Razumich & Delamater, 2018) In the world of law enforcement, these people are known as Confidential Informants. Often times, these people are criminals looking for leniency in their own case. Because of this, officers or agents may view informants as expendable, pressuring them to commit crimes that could put them in danger or get them killed.
This calls into question the ethics of law enforcement agencies and the morality of those who choose to put someone’s life in danger in order to close a case. This also allows us to view how ethics and morals are closely related. The criminal justice system and the world of law enforcement are shaped by their ethical standards as well as the moral code of those working in the field. The use of informants may be legal, however, the decision to utilize that option is unethical and morally questionable due to several reasons:
The informants might have the wrong motivations for becoming informants. This can compromise the operation as well as endanger the lives of the officers involved. The informants have wrong information and could end up endangering themselves in the process. This is common when law enforcement uses juvenile informants and in-experienced informants. Some informants might go back to committing crimes once the operation they were involved in is completed.
By definition, ‘ethics’ is the discipline of determining right and wrong and outlining moral duties (Ethical Dilemmas and Decisions in criminal justice, 2006). In other words, ethics are determined by society to define how everyone should act. For example, society has determined that it is wrong to murder another human being. Therefore, laws were put in place in order to punish those who commit the heinous crime.
Moreover, workplaces have their own code of ethics that outline how their employees should act. The United States Navy has set the standards for its sailors by outlining their core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment. The Navy is unique in that they train their people to be the physical embodiment of these core values. Much like civilian law, those who cannot conform are disciplined and, because it is a workforce, some are even discharged.
Along with core values, the Navy also gives clear instructions on ethical conduct. These instructions are molded after an executive order issued in 1990 by President George Bush. The Navy Code of Ethics includes things such as “Do- Protect and conserve federal property.” and “Do Not- Use federal property for unauthorized purposes.” (“Navy Code of Ethics”, 2018) These are similar to laws put in place by the society that ban vandalism and theft of government property. Ethics play a role in setting norms for a group of people or even a population but do not determine a person’s personal beliefs; this is what is known as morals.
Morals are one’s personal ability to differentiate from right and wrong. A person’s morals usually set guidelines for how they lead their lives. An example of a moral is to treat someone as you would want to be treated. In the modern society, there are different cultures that have different laws and ethics. Some of these laws and ethics might contradict each other for different societies.
This means that someone might be brought up thinking that it is right to do something but when they interact with another person from another society they might find out that doing it might be morally wrong. The ethical principle of Universalism states that if something is not right for all situations then it is not right for any specific situation. In the case of confidential informants, committing a crime is universally considered morally wrong. Hence, when the confidential informants make a choice of committing a crime so that the law enforcers can catch a criminal their actions are still not morally right.
Using confidential informants might lead to many successful arrests but the process might not be ethically right. Most of the informants might have different motivations that lead into them becoming informants. These motivations might include:
Revenge for Reasons that might be Insignificant
The informants used by law enforcers are mostly criminals who at one point in time got arrested. The other people who are being investigated might have wronged them and this could lead to them wanting revenge. The reasons for wanting revenge might have been trivial but this does not stop the law enforcers from enlisting their help. Several things could go wrong during a drug bust including the death of an informant. The ethical principle of risk aversion dictates that one should take the action that produces the least harm. Putting someone’s life in danger for trifling reasons is highly unethical.
Reduction of Sentence or Charges being Dropped
Some informants agree to work with law enforcers in an attempt either to get the charges against them dropped or to have their sentences reduced. This begs the question of is it morally right to have someone else pay for your crimes? Confidential informants might be legal but is it ethical to have a criminal such as a serial killer become a confidential informant? Some informants can even commit crimes having in mind that they will become informants and this could lead to the charges against them being dropped.
Compensation for cooperating with law enforcers is a regular occurrence. The mode of payment might differ in some instances. However, some law enforcers, for example, the Drug Enforcement Agency sometimes give 10% of the value of the drugs seized to the informant. In other cases, the law enforcers might give the informant a percentage of the drugs seized. This is morally wrong because the role of the law enforcers is to end illegal drug trade but by giving the drugs to the informant they are encouraging the trade.
There are civilians who become police informants just to perform their civic duty. These civilians have the right motivation. Having the right motivation means that they are morally right to provide information to the law enforcers concerning criminal activities. Civilians who become informants out of the sense of civic duty are most of the times law-abiding citizens who have no criminal relations. However, when these civilians perform crimes in order for the target criminals to be arrested, they also become criminals. (Tarwacki, 2018)
About 45% of the one hundred and eleven US capital convictions resulted from informants providing false information according to the Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. (Justiceclearinghouse.com, 2018) The high percentage of cases where the confidential informant lies just to convict a defendant shows that at times the confidential informants are not providing information to the law enforcers out of moral obligations. Another study by Innocence Project shows that 20% of cases where the defendant was wrongfully convicted was as a result of the confidential informant providing false information. (Justiceclearinghouse.com, 2018) An example of a good moral is avoiding lying. The informants who lie hence lack ethics and the casualties of their actions may range from the defendants to the officers involved in the case.
According to the Law Enforcement Oath of Honor, law officers take an oath to have accountability for their actions and not betray the public trust. (Fredericks, 2018) However, this is not the case for some corrupt officers and agents. It is a common occurrence where poorly paid officers are involved in corruption. Drug cartels can bribe these officers and since the officers are poorly paid making extra money is a blessing. Confidential informants can have ties to a certain drug cartel and in order to eradicate competition, they provide information about rival cartels to the law enforcement. The morality of this situation is highly questionable. The law officers might succeed in arresting those involved but the cartel from which the informant belongs to still practices illegal drug trade.
Ethics are related to the doctrine of a moral outcome. This means that there are principles and codes of conduct that govern a person’s life in the society. As stated above the principle of risk aversion dictates that the party involved should take the action that produces the least harm to another person. Sometimes using confidential informants is very risky and can result in tragic instances such as death.
Such was the case for Rachel Hoffman who got killed while being involved in a drug bust. It was the moral obligation of the law enforcement involved in the case to consider the risks involved in using Rachel Hoffman as the informant. However, since most confidential informants are criminals, the law officers consider them as being expendable. The decision by the officers to use Hoffman as the informant lead to her death as well as the dismissal of the officer involved from the force. (Shoetz, 2008)
Hoffman had never participated in a drug deal or even held a gun before and she chose to go with the drug dealers to a new location. This shows that she did not have the expertise to be an informant yet the law enforcers gave her a choice of participating in the drug deal. The failure of the law enforcers to follow ethics and their lack of morals resulted in the death of Hoffman.
Using confidential informants can at times encourage the informants to perform more crimes. An example is during a drug bust, the informant is given either drugs or money to transact with the targeted criminals. The informant might decide to keep part of the money or drugs. After the operation is concluded, the informant might then take the drugs and sell them or use the money for illegal purposes.
Due to such occurrences, the law enforcement should consider a few issues about the informant before enlisting their help. Some of these issues include the probability of the informant getting involved in crime again after the operation is closed and the kind of crime that the informant committed. It is not ethically correct to use a serial killer in an operation with the promise of charges being dropped after a successful operation.
The use of confidential informants is a major ethical dilemma. It is true that informants are very important in investigations and sometimes lead to very successful arrests. However, the informants are most of the times criminals and can cause more harm than good to the investigation. This includes giving false information to the law enforcement and destroying the credibility of an agency. (Wray, 2015) The lives of the law enforcers involved with the case might also be in danger. Is it morally right to include individuals who could harm the officers in an investigation?
In the US, the agencies responsible for law enforcement have confidential informants in 90% of the drug-related cases. (Walker, 2013) With the high number of confidential informants being used, it is certain that not all informants provide true information to the agencies. Such was the case for John Horner who was set up by an informant working for the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office in central Florida. Having to choose between going to prison and being an informant, Horner chose to become an informant. In such cases, in an attempt to avoid going to prison, an informant in Horner’s shoes might forget their moral and ethical values and end up setting up another innocent person. (Walker, 2013)
The use of informants might have several benefits but an ethical dilemma is generated from their use. Following the Golden Rule ethical principle, the law enforcers should do unto the confidential informants as they would like done unto them. This includes risking the lives of the informants in order to close a case. Some law enforcers have been known to coerce civilians into becoming informants and this is not ethical.
- Confidential Informants | Razumich & Delamater | Lawyers. (2018, February 04). Retrieved August 26, 2018, from https://www.lawyersreadytofight.com/2017/11/21/what-are-confidential-informants/
- Navy Code of Ethics. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.secnav.navy.mil/Ethics/Pages/codeofethics.aspx
- Fredericks, S. (2018). Law Enforcement Oath of Honor. [online] Cobbcounty.org. Available at: https://cobbcounty.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=5978:law-enforcement-oath-of-honor&catid=618&Itemid=2172 [Accessed 26 Aug. 2018].
- Tarwacki Sr, R. E. Confidential Informants: Ethical Considerations for the Practitioner.
- Shoetz, D. (2008, May). Fla. Cops Under Fire After Informant’s Murder. Retrieved from ABC News: https://abcnews.go.com/TheLaw/story?id=4822875&page=1
- Confidential Informants: Ethical and Legal Guidelines to Develop Reversal-Proof Cases – Justice Clearinghouse. (n.d.). Retrieved August 26, 2018, from http://justiceclearinghouse.com/confidential-informants-ethical-legal-guidelines-develop-reversal-proof-cases/
- Walker, R. (2013, March 27). The trouble with using police informants in the US. Retrieved August 26, 2018, from https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21939453
- Wray, P. (2015, June 08). Ethical Issues in the Use of Confidential Informants. Retrieved August 26, 2018, from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/ethical-issues-use-confidential-informants-pamela-wray/