What is a confidential informant?

‘A Necessary Evil’: The Cost of Confidential Informants, a KSAT 12 Defenders Investigation, airs Feb. 1 at 9 p.m.

. (KSAT)

This story is part of a KSAT 12 Defenders investigation into the use of confidential informants by law enforcement. The one-hour special report airs on KSAT 12 on Feb. 1 at 9 p.m. Find more reporting here.

For years, you’ve seen them in movies and TV, often depicted as a kind-of-junior, unofficial police agent, risking their lives to pass on vital information to officers to help make the “big bust.”

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But what, in reality, is a confidential informant?

There are actually several types of informants, all of them passing on information to local and federal police and prosecutors:

1) The accused

The first type of criminal informant (CI) are people who were caught committing a crime and are offered a deal by either police officers or attorneys.

“Work for us and any possible charges for your crime will either never be filed or they will be dismissed once we are satisfied with the number of cases you bring in.”

In addition, this type of informant often receives a fee for their work, which can be based on the monetary amount of any illegal drugs confiscated, or on his or her success with bringing in usable tips.

2) The convicted

The second type of CI is a jailhouse informant.

Once again, the motive or reward is a reduction of the degree of criminal charge either pending against them or a reduction in their current adjudicated sentence.

The information provided by this type is often an account of a “confession” by a cellmate awaiting trial for a crime. They have been key in a number of murder cases where the cellmate recounted how they “did it.”

So-called jailhouse “snitches” sometimes also provide information on crimes that their associates have committed outside the jail or prison, again as a tool to barter with prosecutors, or sometimes it is because they believe they might be eligible for any possible reward money.

3) The career informant

The third type of CI is the career informant.

This is often someone who might have had a minor record of misdemeanor crimes in the past or some low-level drug crimes, but they have since gone straight.

However, their past record and perhaps any connections they may have retained gives them the street credibility to pierce certain social circles associated with criminal activity or drug use and trafficking.

The career informant is essentially an employee of law enforcement and so his motivation is to get paid for his work. Sometimes this can be lucrative. Some career informants have percentage agreements with federal law enforcement agencies in which they will get paid based on the amount of any seizure of goods, drugs, or assets like cash and estates.

RELATED: What is actual innocence?

WATCH KSAT 12 Feb. 1 at 9 p.m.

You’ll learn more about these types of informants, how they are being used by local law enforcement and what happens when the system doesn’t work as intended in “‘A Necessary Evil’: The Cost of Confidential Informants,” a KSAT 12 Defenders investigation airing on KSAT 12 on Tuesday, Feb. 1 at 9 p.m.

About the Authors

David Raziq is the executive producer for the Defenders investigative team.

Dale Keller is senior news photographer at KSAT-12.

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