Once a person has a criminal defense lawyer, the government should only communicate through that lawyer. It should never go behind the lawyer’s back and attempt to continue to interrogate the client.
Doing so is a violation of the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel in criminal cases.
Yet jailhouse informants are sometimes paid by law enforcement – usually in jailhouse perks or a break in their own cases. In essence, they are working for the government. Why can law enforcement deploy jailhouse informants to do what they themselves could not?
The answer is they can’t bring in others to do what they are prohibited from doing. Yet evidence from jailhouse snitches is commonly allowed. How can this be?
The use of jailhouse snitches is not completely prohibited, but there are limitations. The closer the situation gets to paying the snitch for information law enforcement cannot legally get, the more likely a judge would say it violates the defendant’s rights.
Furthermore, the prosecution is constitutionally required to turn over to the defense any evidence that makes the informant seem less credible. For example, the prosecution must tell the defense that the informant was offered benefits in exchange for information.
Although judges are supposed to carefully evaluate whether evidence from jailhouse informants violated the defendant’s rights, the reality is that most people trust law enforcement to do the right thing.
Does law enforcement usually do the right thing?
It’s crucial for everyone that they do. When law enforcement in Orange County, California’s jail system started abusing the use of jailhouse informants, trust and confidence in law enforcement plummeted, according to a lawsuit over the program.
The U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into Orange County’s jails in 2016. The newly released report on that investigation acknowledges that law enforcement seems to have routinely used paid informants to gather information on defendants who were represented by lawyers.
Furthermore, jail personnel took care to hide what benefits they were giving to the informants from the prosecutors. As a result, prosecutors further violated defendants’ rights by failing to disclose those benefits.
Although Orange County officials cooperated with the Justice Department, the report notes that these practices continue and have yet to be fully addressed.
In Orange County, the jailhouse snitches often used threats of violence and murder to get their targets to seemingly incriminate themselves. Evidence obtained in this way was presented as fact in at least 140 criminal cases, according to the lawsuit.
We should all be skeptical of evidence purchased from jailhouse snitches.