The Throwaways: Police enlist young offenders as confidential informants

Sarah Stillman, The Throwaways. The New Yorker, 3 September 2012. “Police enlist young offenders as confidential informants. But the work is high-risk, largely unregulated, and sometimes fatal…. In exchange for leniency, untrained informants are sent out to perform dangerous police operations with few legal protections.”

Excerpt from story:

By the evening of her death, Rachel Hoffman had been working for the [Tallahassee] police department for almost three weeks. In bureaucratic terms, she was Confidential Informant No. 1129, or C.I. Hoffman. In legal parlance, she was a “coöperator,” one of thousands of people who, each year, help the police build cases against others, often in exchange for a promise of leniency in the criminal-justice system.

Informants are the foot soldiers in the government’s war on drugs. By some estimates, up to eighty per cent of all drug cases in America involve them, often in active roles like Hoffman’s. For police departments facing budget woes, untrained C.I.s provide an inexpensive way to outsource the work of undercover officers. “The system makes it cheap and easy to use informants, as opposed to other, less risky but more cumbersome approaches,” says Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a leading expert on informants. “There are fewer procedures in place and fewer institutional checks on their use.” Often, deploying informants involves no paperwork and no institutional oversight, let alone lawyers, judges, or public scrutiny; their use is necessarily shrouded in secrecy….

In the mid-nineteen-eighties, Congress enacted federal sentencing guidelines that imposed harsh mandatory minimums for drug offenses, even petty ones. The results of these and similar measures were striking. Over the course of that decade, the U.S. prison population doubled. In Florida, incarceration rates for drug crimes increased nearly twentyfold—with some sentences for marijuana sales surpassing those for murder. The new approach codified a long-standing escape hatch for the accused: to provide “substantial assistance” to authorities in exchange for the possibility of early release or dropped charges. The use of drug informants surged. Soon, legal experts say, the trend swept through state and local law-enforcement agencies across America. Rachel Hoffman was, in this respect, a typical conscript in this country’s numbers-driven war on drugs….

“Letting a young, immature woman get into a car by herself with $13,000.00, to go off and meet two convicted felons that they knew were bringing at least one firearm with them, was an unconscionable decision that cost Ms. Hoffman her life,” the grand jury declared. “Less than fifteen minutes after she drove away from the offices of [the Tallahassee Police Department], she drove out of the sight of the officers who assured her they would be right on top of her watching and listening the whole time. She cried out for help as she was shot and killed and nobody was there to hear her.”…