This fall, Jeremy McLean’s murder caught the interest of state Sen. Adam Kline, a Seattle-area Democrat who had read a New Yorker magazine article about McLean’s work as a drug informant. Disturbed by what he read, Kline resolved to introduce legislation in January that would restrict law enforcement’s use of confidential informants.
In an interview this month, Kline, who chairs the senate Judiciary Committee, said the bill is still being written, but he expects it would:
• Require police to specify in advance exactly how many drug deals an informant would be required to participate in, so that police could not keep an informant in their service indefinitely.
• Encourage potential informants, already vulnerable and facing jail time, to consult a lawyer so they have more clout when striking a deal with drug cops.
• Mandate that informants be at least 16 years old, and those under age 18 would be required to get permission from their parents before working with police.
A similar but less-restrictive bill became law in Florida in 2009 after a 23-year-old woman who was informing for police there was killed during a sting.
Kline has invited McLean’s parents to testify before the Judiciary Committee next year about reforming confidential informant programs in Washington.
At the core of the problem, Kline said, is that the state inadequately funds police agencies. So, instead of hiring experienced, well-trained police officers for undercover work, agencies coerce drug users and small-time dealers into doing the job on the cheap.
“These young people, Jeremy for one and others like him, are recruited because they’re there. The cops have some leverage over them. They could be prosecuted,” Kline said. “I’m not blaming the police. We are forcing police to do this by under-funding police agencies.”
“The public should care about it because these are our children,” he said. “These are not bad kids. These are untrained people conscripted because they can be, and they’re put in harm’s way, and their loss is society’s loss, just exactly the way it would be if a uniformed police officer was shot.”
Mitch Barker, the executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriff’s and Police Chiefs, said most drug enforcement agencies already do much of what Kline is proposing.
When it comes to concerns that informants like McLean are not trained for undercover police work, Barker said he can’t speak directly to McLean’s case. But he said many police agencies try to get an informant to introduce an undercover officer to a high-level drug dealer, then get the informant “out of the way as soon as they can.”
The alternative to using snitches is simply busting fewer drug dealers, said Barker, a former Gig Harbor police chief and assistant chief with the Vancouver Police Department.
Informants like McLean “are just essential,” he said. “I think without the use of confidential informants it’s very difficult to be able to go above the street-level person.”
The law encourages police to use undercover informants, said Mary Fan, a University of Washington professor specializing in criminal law. Deploying informants like McLean has become increasingly popular, she said, because there are few constitutional or statutory restrictions on their use, and snitches can penetrate shadowy organized crime networks with relative ease.
“Informants are a really powerful tool to break into a criminal situation where you don’t have the evidence right on the surface,” Fan said.
There are safer methods for gathering evidence, such as wiretapping a building, she said, but wiretaps and other methods are limited by the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition on illegal searches. By contrast, the U.S. Supreme Court has placed far fewer restrictions on the use of informants, declaring in essence that there is “no honor among thieves” and that criminals can’t reasonably expect that their fellows won’t be wearing a wire.
“And so it’s kind of the wild west out there in terms of informants,” Fan said.
Tuesday: A suspicious phone call, and Jeremy disappears.