Drug Law

The Frightening, Deadly World of the Drug Informant

| by Reason Foundation

by Jacob Sullum

When Richard Furlong, a Buffalo labor lawyer, found out that his 20-year-old daughter, Bianca Hervey, had been nabbed for driving without a license in Attica, New York, he was angry. Partly he was angry that Hervey had neglected to pay several traffic tickets, which resulted in the suspension of her license. But mostly he was angry that Attica police had used the occasion to pressure Hervey into becoming a drug informant. Hervey, a college student who says she doesn't use drugs and doesn't know anyone in Attica who does, told her father she signed a contract agreeing to be a confidential informant after the police threatened her with jail. Furlong had the contract rescinded, but he has been unable to convince Attica officials that it's bad policy to look for informants among people who are not involved in the drug culture. "There has to be a nexus into the drug world," a narcotics officer tells The Buffalo News. "If there is no connection, you're asking them to introduce themselves into a seedy underworld of drugs, corruption and violence, so you can gain some future targets."

Even when people are arrested on drug charges, the News notes, making them into informants can have deadly results. It cites the case of Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old who was murdered by alleged drug dealers in Tallahassee last year after she was busted for marijuana possession and pressured to be an informant. The incident led the Florida legislature to pass a law that tightened the rules for the use of informants. Attica Police Chief William Smith, who refuses to discuss his department's informant policy, is unapologetic about endangering the lives of naive young people arrested on minor charges. "Mr. Furlong doesn't like the way police do things, I guess," he tells the News.

It's worth noting that, while police may always feel a need for informants, laws that criminalize consensual activities such as drug sales greatly magnify that need, since there are no victims to complain or provide evidence. To its credit, the News quotes Peter Christ, the former Tonawanda, New York, police captain who founded Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, regarding the seeming desperation signified by recruiting someone like Hervey as an informant. "When you have a doomed, failed policy," Christ says, "these are the kinds of things you do to try to make it seem like it's working."

Radley Balko discusses the Hoffman case here, here, and here.