Confidential Informants Become Pawns in Dangerous Drug Probes


The New Yorker explores the widespread law enforcement practice of using low-level drug offenders as confidential informants in investigations that sometimes put them at peril. The magazine story details the slaying of Rachel Hoffman, a Tallahassee, Fla., woman who was killed while acting as an informant. Like many of the thousands of people each year who help the police build cases against others, Hoffman was acting on a promise of leniency in the criminal-justice system after a drug arrest. They become pawns in the drug war.

Informants are the foot soldiers in the government's war on drugs. By some estimates, up to 80 percent of all drug cases in America involve them, often in active roles like Hoffman's. For police departments facing budget woes, untrained C.I.s provide an inexpensive way to outsource the work of undercover officers. “The system makes it cheap and easy to use informants, as opposed to other, less risky but more cumbersome approaches,” says Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a leading expert on informants. “There are fewer procedures in place and fewer institutional checks on their use.” Often, deploying informants involves no paperwork and no institutional oversight, let alone lawyers, judges, or public scrutiny; their use is necessarily shrouded in secrecy.

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