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Police tread tricky path with drug informers as Tampa Bay cases show

Every day across Tampa Bay, police officers hand the public's money to people — often people with criminal records — so they can go buy illegal drugs.

Those people are informers, and using them to conduct undercover drug buys is one of the most common and effective tactics police use against drug dealers.

Police like to say it takes a criminal to catch one. It's even harder to catch a drug dealer without one.

"They don't just deal to anybody. They deal with people they know," said Marion County sheriff's Capt. Lee Sullivan, who leads that county's drug task force. "This is oftentimes the only way to infiltrate that organization to get to that target."

Bay area law enforcement spends tens of thousands of dollars a year on confidential informants — or "CIs" as cops call them. This year St. Petersburg police set aside $181,000. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office: $90,000. Last year, Clearwater police spent $30,000.

Some of it is used to reward informers, or help the destitute ones. But most of it is used to buy drugs.

"It's a necessary evil," said Hillsborough County sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon, who spent 10 years as a narcotics detective. "Most informants have dealt drugs and lived the criminal life."

Using criminals against criminals, though, comes with risks.

A 23-year-old Clearwater college student lost her life three years ago when Tallahassee police sent her to a drug deal. Last month, a St. Petersburg detective was charged with extorting his own informer.

Defense lawyer Bryant Camareno said he's had cases where informers have tried to frame his clients.

But as a former prosecutor, he also knows that when informers are used right, they're invaluable.

"You absolutely need CIs," Camareno said. "I will be the first to admit it."

• • •

Informers can access a world the police can't. They may have used drugs in their past, they may still know dealers or know how to find them. They may have left that world, but are still known in it.

Police use them to identify the top targets — whoever is supplying street-level dealers, according to retired Pasco County sheriff's Lt. Bobby Sullivan.

"You can go out and buy from street dealers all day long," he said. "But what good are you really doing when you're just picking up these addicts? You need to get to the midlevel people who sell the drugs.

"And to do that, you need confidential informants."

Bobby Sullivan, who is not related to Marion County's Lee Sullivan, supervised the narcotics unit in Pasco. Both men teach detectives how to run informers and drug operations for the University of North Florida's police institute.

They teach officers how to use CIs in undercover drug deals. The informers buy the drugs, the detectives watch discreetly, then swear under oath to a judge about what they saw. Then the judge signs a search warrant, allowing police to raid the location.

• • •

Court records describe just such a scenario that recently unfolded in Clearwater.

According to a search warrant, a Clearwater detective learned from an informer in late May about an alleged dealer. The informer — referred to as "he/she" in the warrant because police can keep their identities secret — agreed to do an undercover buy.

Here, the detective swore, is how the operation went:

The detective drove the informer to Leo Lane and handed over marked bills. Police observed the informer walk to and from the house.

Minutes later, the informer handed the detective a rock of crack cocaine, according to court records. The next deal, records show, was for oxycodone.

That's how it's routinely done, Bobby Sullivan said. Detectives need to monitor the informer as much as possible, so they can swear under oath where the drugs came from. If police aren't careful, the informers could implicate the wrong people or steal the cash and drugs.

"That's why it's called a controlled buy," he said. "You want to be in control and see everything that was going on."

• • •

Days later, Clearwater police arrested the occupant, 62-year-old Willie Mack. He faces 12 charges, including trafficking in controlled substances and possession and sale of cocaine.

Mack has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Defense attorney John Trevena is representing Mack. His problem with CIs: They're compensated. They can get reward money from police, or an officer could vouch for them in their own criminal case.

"Anytime someone is compensated for their role in the justice system," Trevena said, "there is a real danger that person's credibility could come into question."

Camareno relied on informers as a prosecutor. Now he deals with them as a defense lawyer.

He said he has come across CIs who have exaggerated, lied and used drugs themselves (a violation of police rules).

One tried to set up a client who faced 25 years for trafficking heroin.

"The CI got busted and turned in my guy to protect his supplier," Camareno said. "My guy was just a junkie. The judge didn't appreciate it."

Neither did the jury, he said. His client was found guilty only of possession. He got five years in prison.

• • •

But Camareno knows there are also very good reasons why police rely on informers.

"If a law enforcement officer goes undercover, imagine the risk," he said. "There may be a risk to the informant, but the suppliers are less likely to suspect an informant because they're one of their own."

There are risks, though, for everyone involved.

In 2008, Florida State University student Rachel Hoffman was killed after police sent her to an undercover drug buy. The Clearwater woman's parents championed a new law — "Rachel's Law" — that requires police to be more careful using informers.

Then last month, the FBI arrested St. Petersburg Detective Anthony Foster on federal charges that he extorted $8,000 from one of his own informers.

Police Chief Chuck Harmon believes Foster hid his dealings with the informer from his superiors. The St. Petersburg Police Department is tightening its own informer rules while it investigates all of Foster's CIs.

Bobby Sullivan said he saw the dangers go both ways in Pasco County. Informers would betray and endanger his own undercover detectives; and detectives would have to come to the rescue of their informers.

But he estimated that informers are used in "75 to 80 percent" of all narcotics investigations.

"It's a very necessary tool," Camareno said. "But in light of what we've seen recently, there is more training needed. More control, more supervision."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Police tread tricky path with drug informers as Tampa Bay cases show 07/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 2, 2011 9:01pm]

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