Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Ethics of Using Juvenile Informants

Murder in California prompts new bill, raises questions about whether minors should be operatives.

One month before his 18th birthday, Chad MacDonald was killed because, his family insists, a group of alleged drug dealers found out he'd been a "narc" - an undercover informant for the Brea, Calif., Police Department in Orange County.

Brea Police officials acknowledge that Chad, who was arrested on a felony drug charge in January, had been involved in one, supervised undercover drug buy a month before his murder. But they maintain that Chad took part voluntarily and that they are not responsible for his death. He was dropped as an undercover operative more than a week before his death when he was arrested on a second felony drug charge.

About these ads

Still, as Brea Police and the MacDonald family continue to argue about the department's procedures and ethics, the broader issue of using minors as undercover informants - especially in dangerous situations - has sharpened.

Here in California, a bill to prohibit the use of juveniles in undercover police operations, except those involving illegal tobacco sales to minors, was scheduled to be introduced Monday in the Assembly. And nationwide, MacDonald's death has energized discussion among attorneys and the law-enforcement community on what is the safest and most-effective way to battle teen violence and drug use.

For many law-enforcement officials, the idea of using kids as informants is problematic at best. "The essence of being an undercover operative ... is to win the trust of someone in order to betray it," says Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Washington. "What it teaches - to become a betrayer, to become a seducer, to become a traitor to the trust of other people - is certainly a bad thing to teach to young people."

Apart from physical risk to minors, there is also what many perceive as the danger of using confidential or undercover operatives or informants of any age.

"Informants in general have a very corrosive effect on society," says Dave Kopel, research director for the Independence Institute of Golden, Colo. "We need to be careful not to move to a Soviet model of law enforcement where people fear any other citizen they're talking to could be a government informant."

But with cases of underage drinking, teen drug-dealing, and gang violence, using teen informants can sometimes be the only entree into a world where only minors are trusted. "The only time it's done is when there's no practical alternative," says John Kaye, prosecutor of Monmouth County, N.J., and chairman of the board of the National District Attorneys' Association.

Complicating this discussion is a lack of solid information. The US Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics keeps no records of the numbers of juveniles used in undercover operations, and even experts disagree.

About these ads

For instance, Mr. Kaye says cases of juvenile informants are "very infrequent," noting that in his office, which screens some 27,000 cases per year, the issue comes up perhaps once every five years.

A former Kansas City, Mo., and San Jose, Calif., police chief, however, says that the number of underage operatives being used may be higher than many think.

"It goes on a lot more than people realize because of the mentality of the drug war," says Joseph McNamara, now a research fellow at the Stanford University's Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif. "It's a holy war ... and so the police use a lot of tactics that probably would shock the public if they came to light."

Except for the proposed California statute and a similar proposal in New Jersey, experts say there is no federal or state law regulating the use of minors in undercover police operations. Yet states do have guidelines. "Generally, the accepted guidelines are that the county prosecutor or district attorney would have to give permission to use a confidential informant if that person is under 16," Kaye says.

Parental consent is also required and, in New Jersey at least, "police are never allowed to use a juvenile informant who has a history of mental illness, [attempted] suicide, a condition requiring medication, or is participating in any alcohol- or substance-abuse program."

But Mr. McNamara says that many police departments may not have rules. "There are more than 17,000 police forces throughout the US," he notes. "Many of them, I suspect, do not have firm policies on when to use juveniles and when not to."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.