A lot of criminal activity involves numerous people and a multi-layer organization. Often there are those in charge of the activity – drug distribution, for example. Then there are the people who work for them. All are breaking the law, but prosecutors and law enforcement are most interested in finding and prosecuting the people at the top.
Sometimes, the best way to do that is to offer what’s called “transactional immunity” or sometimes “total immunity” or “blanket immunity” to people farther down on the criminal chain who can help them put the “big fish” behind bars. When someone is granted transactional immunity, it means that if they testify against someone else, they won’t be prosecuted for whatever criminal activity they’ve engaged in –- at least as it relates to the crime at hand.
Maybe, for example, someone is arrested for selling drugs in their neighborhood. That person can lead the authorities to their supplier, who has thus far managed to elude authorities or been able to avoid prosecution due to lack of evidence. If that small-time dealer has information that can put a supplier behind bars, prosecutors may be willing to grant that person transactional immunity and not prosecute them for selling drugs.
Transactional immunity and the Fifth Amendment
A person who’s granted transactional immunity doesn’t have to worry about exerting their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. That’s part of the immunity agreement. They’ll testify to what they know, including their role in the crime. In return, they won’t be prosecuted.
Transactional immunity can be granted by prosecutors for virtually any type of crime – from relatively minor ones like theft to much more serious ones. The goal is to be able to successfully prosecute someone who’s engaged in worse and/or more criminal activity.
The limits of transactional immunity
It’s crucial to understand that while this is often called total or blanket immunity, that doesn’t mean that it’s a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for the rest of your life. It applies only to the crimes specified in the immunity agreement. If that small-time drug dealer who’s given transactional immunity shoplifts a watch or steals a car, the previous immunity is irrelevant.
You should never try to negotiate a deal for immunity on your own. You need legal guidance to ensure that the terms are clearly specified and that prosecutors abide by them.