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Chad MacDonald's Legacy

September 01, 2002

The unexpected good that flowed from Chad MacDonald's short life and tragic death was a state law that slapped strict limits on police agencies that still use youths as informants in criminal investigations. Now that MacDonald's family has accepted a $1-million settlement from Brea and Yorba Linda in connection with the 17-year-old's murder, police departments have more reason to abandon the risky practice of recruiting youthful informants.

MacDonald's death in 1998 at the hands of drug dealers underscored the potential for danger when youthful informants are sent into dark and dangerous places. MacDonald was beaten, tortured and strangled; his bruised and battered body was subsequently recovered from an alley in Los Angeles. His girlfriend was beaten, raped, shot and left for dead in the Angeles National Forest. Their assailants were convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole

The state law that passed shortly after MacDonald's death, coupled with the threat of civil lawsuits like that filed by the MacDonalds, should force the relatively few police agencies still using youthful informants to rethink their policies. Police have no business recruiting youths who can't legally buy cigarettes or beer to serve as informants. Police agencies that still use informants counter with the solid argument that it's difficult to pry open the secretive world of teenagers.

MacDonald's death, however, underscored all that can go wrong. MacDonald clearly was no angel; his ill-fated role as informant stemmed from a January 1998 arrest in Yorba Linda for possessing and transporting methamphetamine. After his mother signed a waiver, MacDonald worked briefly as an informant for the Brea police, making one drug buy while wearing a recording device.

Brea police, who also serve in Yorba Linda, say they stopped using MacDonald some time before he made the fatal trip to a drug house in Norwalk. Police maintain MacDonald was dropped as an informant after a second arrest for methamphetamine possession, and that the boy was not in Norwalk at their behest.

Brea officials said the city's insurance company approved the settlement because ending a potentially long court battle made financial sense. But the MacDonalds believe that police agencies will be forced to reconsider policies after word spreads about the settlement involving one of Orange County's largest police department payouts.

The MacDonalds also hope that legislation signed into law by then-Gov. Pete Wilson will protect youngsters. The law originally banned the use of all juvenile informants, but was amended to prohibit the use of children 12 and younger. Police must gain approval from a judge before recruiting 13- to 17-year-olds. Judges, who must consider the youth's age and maturity, play a crucial role in ensuring that everyone involved--those being asked to serve as informants, their parents and the police--recognize the potential for disaster.

Adults who agree to act as informants arguably have the ability to balance the risks and rewards of potentially dangerous situations. But youths who have run into trouble with the law--and parents who must sign waivers--shouldn't be put in the position of having to make these kinds of decisions.

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