When law enforcement agents go undercover, there is a very real potential that they will participate in illegal activity. Those investigating a drug ring may buy or sell drugs; an investigation into fraud can lead to participation in money laundering or theft. These behaviors can be unavoidable in maintaining undercover status and protecting an officer's identity and intent.
However, these agents don't exactly have a free pass to commit crimes and engage in unlawful behavior without authorization. This can be a very complicated situation, and knowing where the line is between committing a crime and acting in the interest of a operation may not be as clear -- or protective -- as people think.
For example, federal agents were recently charged with serious federal crimes after they allegedly engaged in unlawful activity while conducting an undercover investigation into Silk Road, an extensive online black market.
Silk Road made headlines after it was discovered as a way for people to purchase illegal goods and services anonymously through the Internet with digital currency like Bitcoins.
During their investigation into this site and through transactions conducted as undercover agents, the two men allegedly engaged in unauthorized activity for their own financial gain.
It is alleged that the men re-routed money from the site to their own personal accounts. Prosecutors argue that the money involved in the transactions should have been given to the government. It is also argued that at least one of the men tried to conceal exchanges and transactions with other vendors on Silk Road, suggesting that he was acting outside of the scope of the operation.
The charges against the agents are very serious, as are all types of federal charges. These kinds of cases involve extensive investigations, sizable data and information collected in searches, and the potential for ruinous sentences upon conviction, all of which means that the stakes in these cases are very high. Having legal support in these situations can be all but necessary for those who are facing allegations of federal crimes.
Source: The New York Times, "Inquiry of Silk Road Website Spurred Agents' Own Illegal Acts, Officials Say," Benjamin Weiser and Matt Apuzzo, March 30, 2015