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California and the West

Scrutiny Grows Over Use of Young Informants

Crime: Allegations stemming from boy's slaying underscore dilemma of police who say they need to use minors in some drug cases. Critics says it's too dangerous.

March 26, 1998|MICHAEL G. WAGNER and DAVAN MAHARAJ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The mother says Brea police gave her son this ultimatum: Snitch on drug dealers or go to jail. It was this relationship that Cindy MacDonald claims led to her 17-year-old son being killed in a Norwalk home known as a center of drug activity.

Police acknowledge that they sometimes use youths as informants, but dispute the mother's account and hope to unseal confidential records later this week to prove their contention. Whatever the outcome, the practice of using underage police informants has come under increased scrutiny by critics who warn that it places children too close to the violent drug culture.

Most Southern California law enforcement agencies say they never use minors for undercover operations, even if internal policy allows it. A few, including the San Diego Police Department, say they use underage informants only in rare cases.

Allegations stemming from the death of Chad MacDonald Jr. have underscored the dilemma faced by some police officers who say they need to rely on young informants to ferret out drug sales--especially when other young people are involved. But it has also ignited a debate over whether using minors in the war on drugs is ever an appropriate tactic.

"It's despicable. It's the exploitation of children," said Jack King of the Washington-based National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "It puts youngsters at a terrible risk and gives them the wrong idea of what the American criminal justice system is all about."

The Los Angeles Police Department does not prohibit the use of juveniles for undercover work, but Cmdr. Dave Kalish, the department's spokesman, said "it's been our practice not to use them to buy drugs" because of the danger involved.

Santa Ana Police Lt. Robert Sayne said his department has a well-established policy precluding juveniles from being informants. The San Bernardino Sheriff's Department uses teenagers as decoys, but only to expose stores that sell liquor or cigarettes to minors, and only when a deputy is nearby to monitor transactions.

Riverside and San Bernardino police say they do not use underage informants, in part because there is no shortage of adults to do the job.

"The concern is, they'd be in harm's way," said Riverside Police Sgt. Chris Manning.

Nonetheless, some police departments have concluded that the use of children to halt drug trafficking is sometimes warranted, especially in cases in which other juveniles are the suspects.

San Diego police, for example, use juvenile informants in drug cases but only with the written permission of a parent or guardian and in cases involving "low, low risk," officials said.

"One of the hardest subcultures for law enforcement to penetrate is the teenage subculture," said San Diego Police Capt. Cheryl Meyers. Still, she says, no juvenile informants have been used by San Diego police in the more than three years she has run the narcotics squad.

Without informants, many crimes would go unsolved, law enforcement officials said. Some informants are simply paid money for their information. Others begin cooperating with police after they are arrested and, usually in exchange for a lighter sentence, are asked to help snare others.

Children are seldom relied upon to bust drug dealers because "juvenile informants can't do very much for the police," said Carl Armbrust, head of the Orange County district attorney's Narcotic Enforcement Team. Youths usually lack the contacts and the ability to deliver a drug kingpin, he said.

Peter Arenella, a professor at UCLA Law School, said that turning a juvenile into an undercover police informant would show questionable judgment, "unless [the informant] had very special access to very significant criminal activity and the police had no other alternative."

An attorney for Cindy MacDonald charged this week that her son was forced into becoming a snitch after police arrested him in January for drug possession. The mother says the bargain with police--to become an informant in return for a lenient sentence--led Chad MacDonald into a Norwalk home that is well-known as a place of drug and gang activity.

Two days later, on March 3, the Yorba Linda boy's body was found in an alley in South Los Angeles. He had been tortured. His girlfriend was raped, shot and left for dead in the Angeles National Forest, where she was later found by a passing motorist.

On Wednesday, one of the three suspects in MacDonald's slaying appeared in a Los Angeles court to face murder charges.

Florence L. Noriega, 28, waived extradition from Las Vegas, where she and another suspect, Michael Lucas Martinez, were arrested earlier this month. A warrant is out for the arrest of the third suspect, Jose A. Ibarra, 19.

The case is still unfolding, but law enforcement sources say Brea police told Orange County prosecutors that they had stopped using MacDonald as an informant before he turned up dead.

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