Pubdate: Fri, 01 Jan 2016
Source: Chattanooga Times Free Press (TN)
Copyright: 2016 Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc.
Note: Paper does not publish LTE's outside its circulation area
Author: Connor Sheets


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Ryan never imagined he would one day be a snitch.

The soft-spoken University of Alabama student was watching a movie 
with a couple of friends at his off-campus house in Tuscaloosa one 
evening in late 2012 when a team of plainclothes West Alabama 
Narcotics Task Force officers knocked on his door.

They were there to serve a warrant to search his home, as he had been 
outed as a drug dealer by a friend and fellow UA student the task 
force had "turned" and used as a confidential informant. Little did 
Ryan know, he would soon be turning on his own friends at the university.

Ryan had fallen victim to the controversial and relatively new police 
tactic of recruiting college students accused of minor drug offenses 
to execute risky operations like wearing audio recording devices to 
undercover drug buys and turning in their suppliers.

Experts and critics say the practice amounts to a legal and ethical 
black hole where law enforcement agencies skirt and sometimes break 
the law in order to boost their arrest numbers by taking advantage of 
naive youngsters, all under the aegis of the War on Drugs.

But police said it is a vital and highly effective tool in the 
ongoing effort to combat drug abuse on campuses and streets across the nation.

Ryan who spoke with on condition of anonymity because he 
promised the task force he would never tell anyone about his 
activities as an informant watched as officers proceeded to search 
his apartment, eventually finding about a quarter-ounce of pot and 
two or three marijuana pipes. He says they then handcuffed him to his 
dining room table and threatened and intimidated him until he agreed 
to work as an undercover drug informant for the task force in 
exchange for not arresting him.

"It was a lot of threats, just trying to scare me, and I was 19 at 
the time, and I had never even had a speeding ticket," he told 
at a bar in Birmingham, where he asked to meet in order to avoid 
being overheard in Tuscaloosa discussing his informant work. "They 
were yelling at me and saying if I didn't help them they were going 
to screw me and my friends over."


Law enforcement agencies across the United States have used 
confidential informants to help solve crimes for generations. Studies 
show to this day the vast majority of drug cases are built on the 
backs of confidential informants.

But the deployment of the practice on college campuses which has 
emerged publicly as a widespread tactic over the past decade has come 
under heavy fire in recent years in the wake of multiple high-profile 
deaths of students who had served as confidential drug informants.

Controversy over the practice was reignited this year after a 
Buzzfeed investigation into the use of University of Mississippi 
students as confidential informants preceded the institution of 
reforms of a local drug task force and the resignation of the officer 
at its helm.

Experts and advocates said deploying students to conduct undercover 
drug buys and other highrisk operations invites violence, breeds 
distrust between students and the police tasked with protecting them 
and often oversteps important legal and ethical boundaries.

One of the key accusations commonly levied by critics of the practice 
is it violates or comes perilously close to violating students' 
rights to counsel, due process and other constitutional and legal 
protections. Law enforcement advocates counter people who have not 
been arrested and are simply being questioned by police do not have 
to be Mirandized and have fewer rights than an arrested individual.

Betty Aldworth, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based 
national advocacy group Students for Sensible Drug Policy, rejects 
that argument. She believes students are often not aware of their 
rights when interacting with law enforcement, and police perpetrate a 
"gross violation of (students') rights" when they exploit that 
vulnerability by misleading and intimidating them until they agree to 
be informants.

"The problem is that when they are in that situation, they don't 
understand that they have a right to a lawyer, that they don't have 
to talk to police whether or not they are under arrest," Aldworth 
said in a telephone interview with

"The entire confidential informant system is broken in that sense, 
and especially when it comes to young people, because police assume, 
often correctly, that young people are going to be too terrified to 
assert their rights, if they even know them in the first place."

Capt. Wayne Robertson, commander of the West Alabama Narcotics Task 
Force, declined to comment on the issue of his unit's use of students 
as confidential informants, referring inquiries to Lt. Teena 
Richardson, a spokeswoman for the Tuscaloosa Police Department.

The task force - which is made up of officers from the Tuscaloosa, 
Northport and University of Alabama police departments and 
representatives of the offices of the Tuscaloosa County sheriff and 
district attorney is based at the headquarters of the Tuscaloosa 
Police Department.

"We don't tell how our informant program works," Richardson said 
during a brief phone interview earlier this month. "Confidential 
informants are essential to investigations to obtain information that 
can't be obtained anywhere else. ... Even the information that comes 
from a confidential informant, you still have to verify and confirm 
that the information is reliable."

Chris Bryant, a spokesman for the University of Alabama, declined to 
comment on the use of UA students as confidential informants or to 
facilitate an interview with a school administrator or official about 
the topic, instead providing a short statement via email.

"Like all universities, UA is concerned about the national problem of 
substance abuse, and we will continue to cooperate with local law 
enforcement agencies to help ensure the safety and well-being of our 
campus and community," the statement read in part.


Going undercover to gather incriminating information about the "four 
or five people" the task force demanded Ryan "get" would prove to be 
a risky task with far-reaching repercussions that follow him to this day.

He became known at UA as a snitch, and was threatened and ostracized 
by a number of students caught up in an infamous Feb. 29, 2013, drug 
raid an operation of unprecedented scope for the task force, which 
arrested 61 students and 13 non-students across Tuscaloosa that day.

Several of those students told they and others believe they 
were only on the unit's radar because Ryan "narc-ed." They spread 
word he may have turned on them, and Ryan said his reputation has 
never recovered.

"It was stupid. It was just, like, minor weed stuff, and I felt 
horrible about it. They made me buy, like, small amounts of weed from 
people," he said. "I had to meet them first the police and they would 
follow you and make sure you did everything right. It was just like a 
scene in the movies."

Ryan explained task force officers would wire him up to record audio 
and then send him into the homes and cars of fellow students, most of 
whom were friends and acquaintances whose names he offered up as part 
of his arrangement with the drug unit.

He would purchase a gram of marijuana from them and then take the pot 
to the police, who would confiscate it with the intention of using it 
and the audio recordings as evidence against the students who sold to him.

A couple months later, Ryan recognized some of the people he had 
exposed to police scrutiny among the names of those who were arrested 
in the Feb. 29, 2013, raid.


There are burgeoning efforts at the national level and in some state 
legislatures to try to reign in or eliminate the controversial use of 
college students and other young people as confidential informants. 
Florida and New Jersey have passed laws restricting the practice, and 
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, said earlier this month 
he is working on federal legislation to enact similar reforms nationwide.

But observers and experts like Lance Block, a Florida lawyer who has 
represented the families of five confidential informants who were 
killed including three who were college students at the time of their 
deaths and who has emerged as perhaps the nation's leading critic of 
confidential informant operations, said more needs to be done.

Block believes the problems with informant programs stem largely from 
the direct link between the number of arrests law enforcement 
agencies make and the level of government funding and grants they receive.

"There's no distinction between arresting a drug lord or arresting a 
college student who has a couple of joints. An arrest is an arrest, 
and there's no question it's important for law enforcement, in order 
to maintain funding or increase the level of funding for drug 
enforcement," Block told

"The key thing is statistics drive funding, and the more arrests, the 
more need for funding or at least that's the myth. And police can 
increase the number of arrests even though they're small-time drug 
offenders. That's the driving force behind using confidential informants."

Aldworth agrees law enforcement funding is a key driver of the use of 
students as informants. But she said there needs to be greater public 
awareness of the reach and negative impacts of the practice, no 
matter why it is being employed.

"I think parents in particular would be shocked to learn their 
children and their children's friends are exposed to this kind of 
system while they're in college in particular," she said.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom