TUSACALOOSA, Ala. — Ryan never imagined he would one day be a snitch.
The soft-spoken University of Alabama student was watching a movie with a couple of friends at his off-campus house in Tuscaloosa one evening in late 2012 when a team of plainclothes West Alabama Narcotics Task Force officers knocked on his door.
They were there to serve a warrant to search his home, as he had been outed as a drug dealer by a friend and fellow UA student that the task force had “turned” and used as a confidential informant. Little did Ryan know he would soon be turning on his own friends at the university.
Ryan had fallen victim to the controversial and relatively new police tactic of recruiting college students accused of minor drug offenses to execute risky operations like wearing audio recording devices to undercover drug buys and turning in their suppliers.
Experts and critics say the practice amounts to a legal and ethical black hole where law enforcement agencies skirt and sometimes break the law in order to boost their arrest numbers by taking advantage of naïve youngsters, all under the aegis of the War on Drugs.
But police say that it is a vital and highly effective tool in the ongoing effort to combat drug abuse on campuses and streets across the nation.
Ryan — who spoke with AL.com on condition of anonymity because he promised the task force he would never tell anyone about his activities as an informant — watched as officers proceeded to search his apartment, eventually finding about a quarter-ounce of pot and two or three marijuana pipes. He says they then handcuffed him to his dining room table and threatened and intimidated him until he agreed to work as an undercover drug informant for the task force in exchange for not arresting him.
“It was a lot of threats, just trying to scare me, and I was 19 at the time and I had never even had a speeding ticket,” he told AL.com at a bar in Birmingham, where he asked to meet in order to avoid being overheard in Tuscaloosa discussing his informant work. “They were yelling at me and saying if I didn’t help them they were going to screw me and my friends over. I had to get, like, four or five people for them.”
A ‘broken’ system
Law enforcement agencies across the United States have used confidential informants to help solve crimes for generations. Studies show that to this day the vast majority of drug cases are built on the backs of confidential informants.
But the deployment of the practice on college campuses — which has emerged publicly as a widespread tactic over the past decade — has come under heavy fire in recent years in the wake of multiple high-profile deaths of students who had served as confidential drug informants.
Controversy over the practice was reignited this year after a Buzzfeed investigation into the use of University of Mississippi students as confidential informants preceded the institution of reforms of a local drug task force and the resignation of the officer at its helm.
Experts and advocates say that deploying students to conduct undercover drug buys and other high-risk operations invites violence, breeds distrust between students and the police that are tasked with protecting them and often oversteps important legal and ethical boundaries.
One of the key accusations commonly levied by critics of the practice is that it violates or comes perilously close to violating students’ rights to counsel, due process and other constitutional and legal protections. Law enforcement advocates counter that people who have not been arrested and are simply being questioned by police do not have to be Mirandized and that they have fewer rights than an arrested individual.
Betty Aldworth, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based national advocacy group Students for Sensible Drug Policy, rejects that argument. She believes that students are often not aware of their rights when interacting with law enforcement, and that police perpetrate a “gross violation of (students’) rights” when they exploit that vulnerability by misleading and intimidating them until they agree to be informants.
“The problem is that when they are in that situation, they don’t understand that they have a right to a lawyer, that they don’t have to talk to police — whether or not they are under arrest,” Aldworth said in a telephone interview with AL.com.
“The entire confidential informant system is broken in that sense, and especially when it comes to young people, because police assume, often correctly, that young people are going to be too terrified to assert their rights, if they even know them in the first place.”
Capt. Wayne Robertson, commander of the West Alabama Narcotics Task Force, declined to comment on the issue of his unit’s use of students as confidential informants, referring inquiries to Lt. Teena Richardson, a spokeswoman for the Tuscaloosa Police Department.
The task force — which is made up of officers from the Tuscaloosa, Northport and University of Alabama police departments and representatives of the offices of the Tuscaloosa County sheriff and district attorney — is based at the headquarters of the Tuscaloosa Police Department, which plays a key role in the unit’s operations.
“We don’t tell how our informant program works,” Richardson said during a brief phone interview earlier this month. “Confidential informants are essential to investigations to obtain information that can’t be obtained anywhere else … Even the information that comes from a confidential informant, you still have to verify and confirm that the information is reliable.”
Chris Bryant, a spokesman for the University of Alabama, declined to comment on the use of UA students as confidential informants or to facilitate an interview with a school administrator or official about the topic, instead providing a short statement via email.
“Like all universities, UA is concerned about the national problem of substance abuse, and we will continue to cooperate with local law enforcement agencies to help ensure the safety and well-being of our campus and community,” the statement read in part. “One of our top priorities at The University of Alabama is the safety and well-being of our students.”
Infamous Alabama marijuana bust
Going undercover to gather incriminating information about the “four or five people” the task force demanded Ryan “get” would prove to be a risky task with far-reaching repercussions that follow him to this day.
He became known at UA as a snitch, and was threatened and ostracized by a number of students caught up in an infamous Feb. 19, 2013 drug raid — an operation of unprecedented scope for the task force, which arrested 61 students and 13 non-students across Tuscaloosa that day.