POLITICS
04/26/2017 10:22 am ET Updated Apr 27, 2017

North Dakota Reins In Law Enforcement's Use Of Confidential Informants

A new state law is named after Andrew Sadek, a college student found dead after agreeing to inform for police when they caught him with marijuana.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) signed a bill into law Monday that will implement new rules on law enforcement’s use of confidential informants and expand legal protections for people who agree to cooperate with police.

HB 1221, which is due to take effect in July 2018, lays out training requirements for agencies that use confidential informants. Under the law, departments must draft “reasonable protective measures” for Confidential Informants. Police will be required to tell would-be informants that they have a right to an attorney and they can stop working with them if they want. The legislation stipulates that agreements between law enforcement and CIs must be written, and it needs to include details such as the anticipated number of drug buys or sales and the duration of service.

The new law also restricts the use of juveniles under age 15 and implements new standards for informants who are minors. It prohibits campus police from recruiting confidential informants. And in the case of an informant’s death, it holds that an independent law enforcement agency will be tasked with leading the investigation.

HB 1221 provides a layer of official oversight to a shadowy area of law enforcement that typically goes unchecked, even as police around the U.S. have become increasingly reliant on confidential informants to gather intelligence. Officers often recruit individuals who are facing possible criminal charges, which gives police leverage to pressure people into cooperating in exchange for a reduction in punishment.

The legislation, also known as Andrew’s Law, stemmed from the high-profile death of Andrew Sadek in 2014. Police coerced the 20-year-old college student into working undercover after officers caught him with a small amount of marijuana in November 2013. He’d never been in trouble before, but facing what cops claimed could be up to 40 years in prison for selling small amounts of weed to students, Sadek was eager to find a way to receive more lenient treatment.

After spending a few months conducting controlled buys for police, Sadek went missing. In June 2014, he was found dead in a river in Minnesota, near the North Dakota border. He was wearing a backpack full of rocks and had sustained a gunshot wound to the head. Although the autopsy results were inconclusive, Sadek’s parents believe he was murdered in retribution for working with police. They have filed a wrongful death lawsuit, which is set to go to trial next year.

Sadek’s case gained further attention more than a year later, when CBS “60 Minutes” covered it in a segment on law enforcement’s recruitment of young and often vulnerable people to serve as informants. The report featured the highly publicized murder of Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old Florida woman who was killed by a dealer after police pressured her to go undercover for a drug sting. Her case led to the passage of “Rachel’s Law” in Florida, which laid out safeguards for confidential informants similar to ones that are due to go into effect in North Dakota.

The “60 Minutes” segment included footage of Sadek’s interrogation, in which an officer can be heard appearing to present the student with a choice: Turn snitch or face the possibility of a stiff prison sentence.

“That’s the most unrealistic view of somebody who sells a very small amount of pot ― they’re not even going to jail in North Dakota as a first time offender,” the Sadeks’ attorney Tim O’Keeffe told HuffPost. “Andrew didn’t realize that it wasn’t going to be that bad if he said no.”

I firmly believe that if this law had been in place three years ago, Andrew would still be with us. It needs to be nationwide. Tammy Sadek

Police were able to take advantage of Sadek because he was scared and on unfamiliar legal terrain, said state Rep. Rick Becker (R), the sponsor of HB 1221.

“Certain minimal protections that ought to be afforded anyone were not available to Andrew,” he said. 

Becker introduced the bill in hopes of bringing uniformity, transparency and accountability to confidential informant programs in North Dakota. Although Becker was pleased with the final version of the bill, he said certain members of law enforcement had no interest in making changes.

“They were unwilling to even take a look at the bill,” he said. “It was simply the aspect of not wanting any kind of restriction whatsoever, certainly not put in place by the legislative body. They just wanted to do things on their own.”

Becker believes Andrew’s Law wouldn’t hamstring police departments that want to use confidential informants. The bill simply provides some base-level protections for individuals who find themselves in positions like Sadek’s, he said.

Tammy Sadek, Andrew Sadek’s mother, said those guidelines might have been enough to save her son.

“I firmly believe that if this law had been in place three years ago, Andrew would still be with us,” she said. “It needs to be nationwide.”

After a bill signing ceremony with the governor on Wednesday, Sadek will continue campaigning for similar legislation in other states. Lawmakers in South Dakota have already reached out to her, she said.

In the meantime, police in most states ― as well as at the federal level ― will likely continue to run confidential informants programs that put vulnerable people in the crossfire. In Idaho, for example, questions have been raised about the 2016 death of Isaiah Wall, another teen who was found dead after agreeing to inform for state police. 

“It’s a highly unregulated area,” said Jon Shane, an associate professor at the Jon Jay College of Criminal Justice.

In a recent brief, Shane found that most agencies have poor rules on the use of informants. This can make programs ripe for forms of abuse that can damage criminal investigations and endanger cooperating individuals, he said.

“Many police departments don’t have policies in place, and many policies that are in place are weak,” Shane said. “Because there’s no training, police officers don’t really understand the criminal risks, they don’t understand the civil risks, and they certainly don’t understand the physical harm.”

Such a laissez faire approach to confidential informants might not exist were it not for the results-oriented nature of law enforcement, which is willing to resort to controversial tactics in the quest for arrests.

“This war on drugs puts blinders on people, where it’s just, ‘go get em, go get em, go get em,’” Becker said. “And if justice and civil liberties are casualties along the way, people think that’s OK.”

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