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Dangerous Consequences of Using Untrained Informants in Criminal Case

A recent article in the September 3, 2012 issue of the New Yorker magazine highlights some of the dirty little secrets of our society's so-called "war on drugs", and points to the importance of hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney at the earliest inkling that you or a loved one may be the subject of an inquiry by law enforcement into allegations of criminal conduct.

The article is called "The Throwaways" by Sarah Stillman.

The article details several instances where young people, some as young as 16 or 17 years old, with no or very little prior contact with the criminal justices system, arrested, or about to be arrested, for possession or sale of even relatively small amounts of controlled substances, were pressured to "work off their cases" by the police, by helping the police to catch other drug dealers (often their friends or close personal contacts), without the opportunity to consult a lawyer. Operating with no independent oversight or government regulations in place, the police promised to protect the safety of their informants, and then pressured them to set up dangerous traffickers of guns and narcotics. Typically, these kids are pressed to contact their suppliers, often friends or other low level dealers, and then sent out with a hidden recording device and previously recorded or "marked" money to make a purchase with the police monitoring the transaction electronically from the safety of their police cars. But when something goes not according to plan, or the police fail to use appropriate caution to protect the identities of their informants and the drug and gun dealers they are trying to set up find out, these young and relatively naïve kids are left high and dry. In the cases illustrated in the article, the young people ended up murdered in horribly brutal fashion. When the families of the youngsters, some of whom had no prior knowledge of the dangerous work their children had been pressed into doing, had sought explanations from the police, law enforcement had thrown the kids under the bus, painting them as drug dealing monsters who had failed to follow the instructions of their police handlers.

The article is required reading for everyone, especially High School and college-age young adults and their parents.

Some of the more pernicious aspects of the pervasive police practice of sending unpaid, untrained, and unsophisticated young kids into the streets to make controlled buys from dangerous dealers are:

1. To an extent many of us in the criminal defense community know full well but which most ordinary citizens don't realize, police and prosecutors rely heavily on informants to gather evidence against others engaged in criminal activity.

2. Law enforcement agencies need to keep their arrest numbers up because arrest numbers are a major factor in determining the size of their budgets. Quality of the arrests is less important. Therefore, there is a greater emphasis on catching petty or small-time dealers, and less of a focus on middle men or "kingpins" of the illegal drug and gun business.

3. Because of draconian drug sentencing laws enacted in the 1980's, people charged with selling controlled substances, including relatively small amounts of such pervasive and readily available stimulants such as cocaine, prescription pain medication, and marijuana, can find themselves facing potentially lengthy prison sentences if convicted.

4. Small-time or occasional dealers and users of narcotics whom the police catch are especially tempting targets for the police to recruit to help them catch others engaged in criminal activity because:

a. The use of informants is a cost-effective (i.e., cheap) way for budget-conscious police departments and prosecutors' offices way to get the labor to do the dirty work that they would otherwise would have to do themselves.

i. The "dirty work" involved is dangerous. Under the most common scenario, an informant is sent out, unarmed, "wired" with a recording device, to buy drugs and/or guns from dangerous, suspicious, violent criminals. The recording device serves two purposes. Recording devices serve as a means for the police to monitor and direct the informant, as well as a means to record evidence of the sale. But the recording device, if discovered by the target, will also blow the snitch's cover, leaving her or him completely exposed with the police powerless to intervene.

b. Such people are likely to know others, often friends, extended family members, or others in their community, involved in similar illegal activity.

c. Such people are easy targets for the police to "flip" (convince them to become informants).

i. The police make their pitch to them early on, either at the scene of their arrest or at the stationhouse, when they are alone and isolated, before they have a chance to speak with a lawyer or a friend or family member with more experience.

ii. They are often young and naïve about the criminal justice system, scared and vulnerable, looking for someone to trust. In such a position, they are particularly vulnerable to police assurances (which the police are under no obligation to fulfill) of protection and hyped up exaggerations of lengthy prison terms they will receive (which may be correct in theory, but which are out of proportion to the actual workings of the criminal justice system, which has opportunities for drug treatment or reduced no-jail sentences for young or first offenders without becoming informants).

iii. Faced with the prospect of going to jail, having a criminal record, or having their friends and family find out about their arrest, they are in a particularly scared and vulnerable position.

iv. The police can make all kinds of assurances to them about how their targets will protect their identities and be there to back them up if anything goes wrong.

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