An Orange County judge has thrown out a lawsuit filed by relatives of a Yorba Linda teenager whom gang members killed in 1998 after he worked as an undercover informant for Brea police.
The ruling is a significant victory for the small police force, which was widely criticized for using 17-year-old Chad MacDonald to buy drugs after officers arrested him for methamphetamine possession. In response to the teen's death, legislators passed a law restricting police use of minors working undercover.
But Superior Court Judge Thierry Colaw concluded Thursday in a written order that police were not liable because MacDonald's mother signed a waiver consenting to her son's informant work and because police cannot be held responsible for "heinous criminal acts of third persons."
"There was no evidence presented that defendants caused Chad's death," Colaw wrote.
The MacDonald family said that the waiver was invalid and that the city should be held liable for failing to protect the teen. The department said MacDonald was no longer working for police when he was killed.
"I'm very disappointed with the judge's ruling," said MacDonald's mother, Cindy MacDonald, who declined further comment.
Lloyd Charton, the family's attorney, said he would appeal the decision. The case was scheduled to go to trial next month.
The case had been closely watched by law enforcement officials, who feared an adverse verdict might have an effect on future use of informants, a key tool in narcotics investigations.
"If Brea would have lost several million dollars in an informant situation, I can tell you most of the city attorneys would have put out an alert and said, 'You probably shouldn't use informants, or only use them if you follow very strict guidelines,' " said Craig Steckler, president of the California Police Chiefs Assn.
Leonard Hampel, who defended Brea police in the lawsuit, said the decision vindicates the force. Holding the department liable for the death of a former informant, he said, would have set a disturbing precedent that could have hurt crime-fighting efforts.
"You'd be signing a blank check every time you used a confidential informant," he said. "And the result would be police simply wouldn't use them."
Brea City Manager Tim O'Donnell said, "We always believed our Police Department was completely innocent in this matter."
Brea Police Chief William C. Lentini declined to discuss the case.
MacDonald agreed to work as an informant after a January 1998 arrest for methamphetamine possession. In exchange, authorities agreed not to prosecute him. MacDonald made one undercover drug buy while wearing a hidden recorder and gave police information about two other suspected drug traffickers.
When police arrested MacDonald a second time with methamphetamine, they told him he no longer would be used as an informant and would be charged. Less than two weeks later, MacDonald was robbed, beaten and strangled at a Norwalk house frequented by drug users and dealers.
MacDonald's then-16-year-old girlfriend was raped, shot in the face and abandoned near a remote highway. She survived.
Police said MacDonald never provided information about the people who killed him.
Three people were sentenced this year to life in prison without possibility of parole for MacDonald's death. Defense attorneys argued at the trial that the assailants thought MacDonald was an informant and were trying to "teach him a lesson" when they accidentally killed him.
One of the defense lawyers, Richard Leonard, was highly critical of Brea police's handling of MacDonald.
"I think the Police Department was responsible for setting this kid up as an informant," Leonard said. "I do feel sorry for the family. I thought they had a good lawsuit."
Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach), who sponsored a law that requires police to obtain a judge's approval before using juveniles in undercover work, said the ruling did not surprise him.
"The police conduct was within the parameters of the law at the time," Baugh said. "I just thought it was wrong for juveniles to work sting operations. That's why we passed the legislation."
MacDonald's death received nationwide publicity and spurred a debate about how far police should go in fighting drug trafficking.
Gilbert Geis, a UC Irvine professor emeritus of criminology, law and society, said juveniles should not be used as informants because it may put them in situations that threaten their lives. Drug cases, he said, are especially dangerous.
"It seems to be what they accomplish with the use of juvenile informants is not worth the risk they are taking with the informant," he said.
Geis said police departments should be responsible for the safety of juvenile informants even after they have stopped working together. A person's reputation as an informant, he said, is not erased just because he stops working with police.
Mary Dodge, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Colorado who has studied the MacDonald case, said the decision sets a bad precedent and could encourage more departments to use juvenile informants.
Youngsters used in police investigations, she said, are often coerced into doing so, and even their parents don't know the consequences of becoming an informant. The juveniles, she said, are also returned to a criminal world they should be sheltered from.
"They're not getting the help they need, they're not getting treatment, and they're being put right back in the environment that's going to be conducive to using drugs," she said.