Police undercover operations such as the one in Huntington Beach that led to the arrest Thursday morning of eight students for selling drugs on high school campuses are perfectly legal. Time and again, court challenges have sustained that.
But legal scholars and attorneys said the undercover operations pose serious ethical questions, perhaps even moral questions.
Patricia Herzog, an attorney with the Orange County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the different angles of each operation should be judged separately.
"The real question is that this is a form of surveillance in a situation in which the students are in a protected environment," she said.
"The school takes the place of the parent in this case. There isn't the clear-cut case you have with adults (engaging in illegal drug activity). You must balance the needs of the school district and the freedom of the students.
"The negative factor is that students should be trusting of each other. This tends to poison the atmosphere."
The undercover operations, in which a young-looking police officer enrolls in school, have identified students who sell drugs and resulted in their arrests. But there have been cases where serious ethical problems were unveiled.
In Los Angeles last year, an undercover police officer--a 23-year-old woman--was fired over allegations that she had become personally involved with one of the students she had arrested after surveillance.
In another case, the Los Angeles ACLU defended a developmentally disabled boy arrested after he sold $9 worth of marijuana to a young woman officer. The lawsuit said the boy had merely responded to the "first woman to pay any attention to him."
John Conley, head of the juvenile section of the District Attorney's Office, said there is nothing unethical in these cases.
'It Is Not Unethical'
"As far as I'm concerned, it's a recognized technique, and it is not unethical. Schools would be sanctuaries for drug use if we didn't have these programs," Conley said.
Capt. Bruce Young, who is in charge of the Huntington Beach Police investigations division, said police are only responding to problems of the community. In this case, school district officials asked the police to conduct the undercover operations, he said.
Young also said students not involved in drugs on school campuses should not fear for their privacy: "If they are not selling drugs, what's the problem?"
Ronald Y. Butler, the Orange County public defender, cautioned that police departments that conduct these investigations should have stricter guidelines before starting a sting operation at a high school campus. He said if police have a prime suspect they think is selling drugs on campus, then that is "probable cause" to act.
"But to go in without any suspects, . . . I don't think that's right," Butler said. "That could border on entrapment, if not entrapment."
One attorney who has handled 45 such cases in the last eight years sees absolutely no justification for the campus drug operations.
Ron Talmo, a professor at the Western State University Law School, said: "The whole program is morally reprehensible. It's a gross waste of money. Essentially, they are preying on a non-offensive element."
Talmo said police officers will "nail a kid for selling a joint for one dollar" but not for giving it away, thus arresting the student on a felony for a relative minor offense.
Distributor Gets Away
What is even worse, Talmo said, is that the people--usually adults--responsible for supplying the drugs that are carried onto school campuses are never arrested: "They never get the distributor, only the kid who sells two joints. These programs are not designed to go up the chain (of drug dealing)."
Young, the Huntington Beach police official, conceded that point.
"Some of that is true," he said. "But we have to do what we can. We have to reach these kids somehow."
But Talmo's harshest criticism of the undercover operations is the educational penalty the students pay. He said in each of the cases with which he has been familiar, the school board has expelled the arrested students for the school year.
"It's a barbaric way of denying these students an education. They would be better off pleading guilty, serving time in Juvenile Hall on the weekends or doing community service. But to be deprived of their education is horrible," he said.
Bonnie Castrey, president of the Huntington Beach Union High School District board, would not comment on whether ethical problems are attached to the undercover operations.
She said she favors cooperation between police and school officials on combating drugs, but she would not say specifically whether she supported the policy of using police officers to infiltrate school campuses.