How Immunity Works In Federal Criminal Cases
Immunity is a powerful tool that gives federal prosecutors leverage that can help them win big cases. When a person has information about a crime, they may feel compelled to keep quiet. Sometimes, they are under threat from an outside party, but often, they are simply afraid of prosecution for their own involvement in the crime.
If a person is suspected to have knowledge of a crime, or they are suspected to have been involved somehow, the federal courts may choose to offer them a form of immunity in exchange for providing the court with their information.
A variety of situations can lead the government to offer immunity:
- The person was directly involved in a crime, but they have information that could potentially bring down a criminal that the authorities feel is more dangerous to society.
- The person was a witness to a crime and needs immunity to avoid prosecution for withholding evidence or other charges that could result from their indirect involvement.
- The person has already been charged for their involvement in the crime, and rather than full immunity, they are offered a reduced sentence in exchange for a statement.
What Are the Different Types of Immunity in Federal Court?
Not every type of immunity offers blanket safety for the person in question. Some guarantee more safety than others.
Proffer Letter Immunity
This type of letter gives a person under investigation “queen for a day” status, allowing them to tell the federal government what they know about a crime without the threat of having their words used against them in court.
This type of immunity isn’t as bulletproof as it sounds. If you’re given proffer immunity by a federal court, your words won’t be used against you in the literal sense. They can be used to inspire investigators to go on the hunt for more evidence to stack against you.
There is another exception to profit letter immunity as well. If the witness changes their story in court, it can count as separate evidence of wrongdoing.
In a federal case, letter immunity is negotiated between the government and the suspect’s lawyer. This is the type of immunity one can really trust in. A solid agreement of letter immunity guarantees that the person’s statement won’t be used against them in any way, including as inspiration to look for further evidence. This type of immunity is offered when a suspect or witness has information so valuable it’s considered worth allowing their possible involvements in the crimes to slide.
While one can technically still get prosecuted in a case with letter immunity, it would be very rare. The government would need overwhelming evidence from a completely different source, and they would need to be able to prove that they didn’t find this source or obtain this information due to their knowledge of the witness statement. This usually isn’t easy to do.
There are exceptions. For example, if a witness had information about a high-level criminal, and they got this information through assisting with a crime, their role in the matter would be set aside. However, if a video was later released by another party, and it clearly showed the witness participating in the crime, prosecution could still occur.
The Fifth Amendment gives citizens the right to refuse to incriminate themselves. However, in the grand jury, things can be a bit different. In federal court, a judge sometimes chooses to force an individual to give a witness statement.
According to 18 U.S.C. § 6002, when a witness with immunity refuses to testify, they can be held in contempt. In exchange for this “taking away” of their right to silence, it is simply transferred into immunity. The witness testifies, and their words will not be used against them.
If you’re involved in a criminal case and considering an offer of immunity, it’s important to avoid moving forward without the advice of a qualified lawyer. Taking an offer of immunity can be highly beneficial or very detrimental depending on your situation. Only an experienced lawyer will be able to determine whether taking an offer of immunity is in your best interest.