If you’ve been watching some of the high-profile criminal cases in the national media, you’ve seen a number of people potentially facing years in prison pleading guilty in exchange for getting probation and other relatively minor consequences. In exchange for that, they’ve provided evidence against others involved in the same offenses and committed to testifying against them.
This is, in fact, a common scenario – particularly when several people are alleged to be involved in a criminal enterprise. Often – but not always – this involves white collar crimes. Such immunity deals are common in drug-related cases as well, for example.
Prosecutors are often willing to provide immunity from prosecution when they’re interested in getting the “mastermind” of the operation or others whom they believe have committed the most serious offenses. They may be willing to sacrifice the prosecution of those they believe were being directed by one or more people to engage in criminal activity or who played a relatively minor role to get the evidence they need to successfully prosecute the “big fish.”
There are two primary types of immunity. It’s critical to understand what each of them involves. Let’s take a brief look at both.
Transactional (blanket) immunity
This is the preferable type if you’re facing charges. It’s also harder to get. If you’re granted transactional immunity, it means that you can’t be prosecuted for your role in the criminal activity about which you’re testifying – even if additional incriminating evidence is found.
While transactional immunity is considered, as we noted, blanket or sometimes “total” immunity, it would not apply to any other alleged criminal activity unrelated to the case.
Derivative use immunity
Sometimes, this is just called “use” immunity. It’s more limited than transactional immunity because it only protects someone from having their own testimony used against them. That doesn’t prevent other evidence from being used, however. It may be offered when prosecutors want to prevent people from “taking the Fifth,” which they often do if their testimony could incriminate them.
Obtaining immunity and potentially getting minimized charges, less or no jail time or even having charges dropped can be a possibility if you have information that can be helpful to prosecutors. If multiple people have this information, the sooner you seek immunity, the better your chances are of getting it. This should never be tried, however, without experienced legal guidance.