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MEMPHIS, Tenn. - It's a system cloaked in secrecy. Confidential
informants have helped lock up dozens of criminals, from drug
traffickers to terrorists, but some say the practice needs more
safeguards. FOX13’s Jill Monier dug around and found some people make a
pretty good living being an informant.
Many speculate Ernest Withers was a paid informant. Not only can an
informant provide law enforcement with tips, they can provide inside
information into an organization’s operation and even secure
convictions with their testimony.
The DEA says they wouldn't effectively be able to enforce the laws
There's the saying, “snitches get wind up in ditches.” FOX13 has found
some snitches get riches.
“You can call the police and be on the side of law enforcement and
justice or you can be on the side of criminals and injustice,” said
Clay Aitken with the Sheriff’s Office.
These are all nicknames for the confidential informant or C.I.
Law enforcement calls them vital. Informants are considered one of
their most effective tools.
A confidential informant is someone who provides information about
criminal activity to law enforcement officers. Their identity is kept
secret to protect them against retribution from those involved in the
“Most of the informants we develop, are involved in criminal activity.
You get your best information from people who have knowledge of the
crimes or are being involved in committing the crimes,” said Aitken.
Sgt. Clay Aitken, with the Shelby County Sheriff’s office says 80 to 90
percent of their informants have become informants following an arrest
and are looking for leniency on their sentences.
But others, who don't have a case to work off, are paid.
Informants come from all walks of life.
They can be photographers, like Ernest Withers, lawyers, mothers,
girlfriends, really anyone, but many times they're crooks.
“If we don’t pay them and we don’t get this information, it could
involve loss of property and eventually loss of life,” said Aitken.
Aitken says informants are necessary, he sites a case where a man who
was supposed to participate in a business robbery, notified deputies
and then became an informant.
“He informed us what they were driving and it happened to be in stolen
car, had ski mask, stolen guns in the vehicle, so when they pulled onto
the lot, we were able to take them into custody and prevent what was
going to be a very, very dangerous situation,” said Aitken.
Records on the number of informants and what they're paid is not made
public by the sheriff’s office. Aitken says informants are paid with
seized drug money, not taxpayers’ dollars.
“I've seen informants get paid anywhere from $50 to thousands of
dollars. But there's no set rate or set fee,” said Aitken.
One of my law enforcement sources who has worked directly with
informants, says he's personally seen a Mid-South informant get handed
$50,000 cash for one tip that led to a huge drug bust but that’s
nothing compared to what the Feds can offer and he says informants have
been known to shop their information around selling it to the highest
According to the 2002 U.S. Attorney General’s guidelines regarding use
of confidential informants on a federal level, payments between $2,500
and $25,000 must be signed off by a senior field manager. Payments more
than $100,000 in one year must get approval from headquarters as does
any payout of more than $200,000 over a lifetime.
An informants pay depends on the level of the targeted individual or
organization, the amount of the seized and significance of their
contribution. While agents are required to inform the C.I that it is
taxable income that must be reported, some doubt it is.
“My experience with informants who want to make a living at it, is they
can make a pretty damn good living,” said attorney Leslie Ballin.
Defense attorney, Leslie Ballin has seen both sides of informants. He’s
represented those who decide to become confidential informants and has
worked against informants, testifying against his clients.
“Once you draw that line and become an informant then you're supposed
to live a law abiding life. Truth of the matter is that really isn't
the case and I believe law enforcement, at times turns a blind eye to
what their informants are doing in the street,” said Ballin.
Aitken says the sheriff's office cannot work with an informant who is
knowingly committing crimes but in Mississippi the rules are different.
District Attorney John Champion says in drug cases, confidential
informants are paid for how much they buy. If they buy $100 of
marijuana, they get $100.
Champion says they had one ex-drug addict work as a professional
confidential informant. He traveled around the country, working for
various narcotics units, and making up to $1,000 a day.
He estimates he got paid between $70 and $90,000 a year.
Federal guidelines also allow confidential informants to illegal
activity without being prosecuted, as long as it’s necessary for the
investigation such as the case of Joe Cooper.
“I was surprised I became a well known informant,” said Joe Cooper.
In 2006, Cooper was approached by the FBI, who informed him he was
facing federal money laundering charges. Cooper agreed to plead guilty
and he became an informant.
“It's kind of like on TV they take you to a room and in my case it was
a nice hotel room and they basically scare the heck out of you and you
have 10 minutes to decide, well do you want to bring in other people
involved that you know about or do you want to spend 20 years in
prison. Well I’m 65, it took me about half an hour to figure it out and
probably some of the people involved who were mad at me for doing this,
it wouldn't have taken them that long really,” said Cooper.
As an informant, Cooper video taped himself making payments to city
councilmen to allegedly secure votes on a zoning project. Cooper's role
as an informant became public only because he was a witness in the case.
Once the video surfaced, one councilman pleaded guilty. The other was
Cooper says he wasn't paid for his information, but was paid to
re-locate for 3 to 4 months.
My incentive was I hoped somebody would have a little mercy on me.
Basically, I risked my life to do this cause I didn't know what was
going to happen when it all came down.
Cooper, who was facing 20 years in prison but he only served 6 months.
However, there are inherent problems with the confidential informant
system. A 2005 audit shows the DEA lacked an effective and accurate
payment system for informants. In some cases, informants have skimmed
drugs off agents before tipping them off to drug hauls and stole money
meant to be used for operations.
Ballin is working on a case right now where an informant, is accused of
setting up someone else.
“Individuals, who become snitches, sometimes try too hard. When they
try too hard they get others involved trying to get credit for
themselves when it shouldn't be,” said Ballin.
While some say paying an informant is like making a deal with the
devil, others say it can be a necessary evil.
“If a person's going to tell the truth why do they need to be given
something in return for their testimony?” said Ballin.
“I think it's probably the only way to prove cases, because when you
have somebody on the inside that knows exactly what's going on and you
them on tape and on that video. It's awfully hard to dispute it,” said
“No matter how you obtain the information, if you can stay one step
ahead of the criminal, it's going to make it a safer community and a
safer place for all of us,” said Aitken.
The number of informants is unknown, although a 2005 audit shows the
DEA had 4,000 confidential informants at any given time.
Some can work as an informant for a long time.
In the federal government, a review committee must review informants,
employed for more than 6 years but, the sheriff's office says long-term
informants are not common on a local level.
Fascinating article... And just hilarious it is out of memphis.
Quote: One of my law enforcement sources who has worked directly with informants, says he's personally seen a Mid-South informant get handed $50,000 cash for one tip that led to a huge drug bust but that’s nothing compared to what the Feds can offer and he says informants have been known to shop their information around selling it to the highest bidder.
This article is really disturbing cops are one thing, taking a job that has so many negative effects on the populations, but snitches - these are people just ruining others lives for profit (or to save their own skins for something they were caught doing, if you're going to do the crime, be prepared to do some time, not to put that time on others...
And didn't this guy win American Idol?
Quote: Sgt. Clay Aitken, with the Shelby County Sheriff’s office