Drug War Draftees

How cops turn young, low-level drug offenders into "confidential informants," a job that might kill them


On November 22, 2013, his 20th birthday, Andrew Sadek sat down across a table from Richland County Sheriff's Deputy Jason Weber at the Law Enforcement Center in Wahpeton, North Dakota. It was the day after cops had searched Sadek's dorm room at the North Dakota State College of Science, finding "an orange plastic grinder with marijuana residue on the inside." It was more than seven months after a confidential informant had caught Sadek on tape selling him small amounts of marijuana: an eighth of an ounce for $60 on April 4 and a gram for $20 on April 9. It was seven months before Sadek was fished out of the Red River near Breckenridge, Minnesota, dead from a gunshot wound to the head and weighed down by a backpack full of rocks.

Sadek's journey from small-time pot dealer to waterlogged corpse, which was highlighted by 60 Minutes last week, dramatically illustrates the dangers faced by young, legally naïve drug offenders who are pressured by the threat of imprisonment to do unto others what was done unto them. Even at a time when the collapse of pot prohibition seems inevitable, drug warriors insist this cruel, occasionally deadly chain of betrayal is essential to their work. They may be right about that, but their work is fundamentally immoral, employing unethical means to achieve an ever-elusive goal that a just government would never pursue.

I first wrote about Sadek last February, after North Dakota's Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) concluded there was nothing wrong with the way he was treated by Weber and his colleagues at the Southeast Multi-County Agency (SEMCA) Drug Task Force. "They never did anything wrong that needed to be changed," Wahpeton Police Chief Scott Thorsteinson, a member of SEMCA's board, told KVLY, the NBC station in Fargo. "These types of investigations are conducted the same way pretty much everywhere." That's precisely the problem.

According to the BCI report, Sadek met with Weber "voluntarily" for a "calm" interview in which "the charges Sadek was possibly facing were explained to him." Weber did not need to raise his voice, because the charges were terrifying enough on their own. SEMCA's confidential informants had arranged to buy marijuana from Sadek on campus, which under North Dakota law qualifies as a "school zone," boosting the maximum penalty for each transaction to 20 years. "Potentially the max is 40 years in prison, $40,000 fine," Weber told Sadek during the meeting, which was recorded. "You understand that?" Weber allowed that "you're probably not going to get 40 years" but said there's "a good possibility that you're going to get some prison time if you don't help yourself out," which is "probably not a way to start off your young adult life and career."

Facing this threat, Sadek agreed (voluntarily!) to become a C.I. Weber told him he could not share this secret with anyone, and as a result Sadek's parents had no idea how the police had used him until after his death. They both told 60 Minutes they never would have let him be an informant if they had known about his situation. Sadek did not consult with a lawyer either. Weber had no legal obligation to inform him that he had a right to do so, since Sadek was not under arrest.

Sadek's agreement with SEMCA called upon him to arrange five pot purchases. In the first two transactions, which happened in November and December 2013 in a parking lot at the university, he paid a suspect identified by SEMCA $60 for an eighth of an ounce. The third purchase, in January 2014, was at the same location and involved the same amount but a different seller. To fulfill his obligation and escape criminal charges, the CBI report says, Sadek was required to arrange two more purchases, but "eventually Sadek stopped contacting Deputy Weber." Sadek was last seen alive early on the morning of May 1, 2014, when a security camera captured his image as he left his dorm.

Sadek's mother, Tammy, suspects her son was killed by "somebody he was trying to get for them" or "somebody he already got," as she put it in a radio interview last January. She told Reason TV that campus police suggested Andrew had committed suicide, which struck her as wildly implausible. None of his friends described him as depressed, no weapon or suicide note was ever found, and it is hard to imagine how he could have managed to shoot himself in the head and hurl himself into the river while wearing a rock-filled backpack. An autopsy was inconclusive on the question of whether Andrew's death was a homicide or suicide.

A footnote in the CBI report says "North Dakota authorities do not have jurisdiction in that case," because "Mr. Sadek's body was discovered in Minnesota," which borders North Dakota on the eastern side of the Red River. According to the CBI, "the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) is the agency that has jurisdiction for the investigation." But the BCA told KVLY it has nothing to do with the case, which is the responsibility of campus police. The university's investigators apparently are convinced that Sadek killed himself. Even if that's true, it seems likely that Sadek's work as a C.I., which forced him to set up other people the same way he had been set up, had something to do with his death.

Contrary to what the CBI report says, no one in Sadek's situation chooses to do such work "voluntarily." Yet Brian Sallee, a former New Mexico narcotics investigator who nowadays makes his living as a police consultant, takes a similar view. "When somebody comes to work for me as an informant," he told 60 Minutes, "it's their decision."

Lance Block, a Florida attorney who advocates legal limits on the use of confidential informants, sees things differently. "It's not voluntary," he told 60 Minutes. "They're being told they're looking at prison time unless they agree to do deals for the police department."

Block was hired to represent the family of Rachel Hoffman, another small-time pot dealer who died while working as a C.I. In 2008 Tallahassee police found five ounces of marijuana and half a dozen MDMA pills in Hoffman's home. Hoffman, a recent college graduate, had previously been caught with 20 grams of marijuana during a traffic stop, so this was her second offense. Police pressured her into arranging a purchase of 1,500 MDMA pills, an ounce and a half of cocaine, and a gun—a deal that went fatally awry when the sellers switched locations and police lost track of her. Block recalled what happened next: "They shot her five times when they found the wire in her purse and dumped her body in a ditch 50 miles away."

Struggling to justify exposing minor, nonviolent drug offenders to such risks, cops argue that informants have no one but themselves to blame for their predicament. That was the tack taken by Keith Davis, head of the Oxford, Mississippi, Metro Narcotics Unit, when he was interviewed by student journalists at the University of Mississippi last April. "These are adults," Davis said, referring to college students conscripted into the war on drugs. "These are 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds. Yes, I get it, they have young minds, whatever. But they are out here creating felonies and hurting our communities….Let's be clear here: These people are not these innocent little college kids, plain and simple. The ones that are selling dope are not innocent people. They're selling poison."

That is the bedtime story drug warriors tell themselves so they can sleep at night. But in a society where people pick their poison, which may be legal or not depending on the whims of legislators, Davis's defense is pretty hard to buy. It is especially unpersuasive now that the main product cops like him bust college kids for selling is a legal commodity in four states and counting.

The drug war's arbitrariness is not limited to the substances it targets, since a drug offender's fate may hinge on the quality of the legal advice he gets. "Greg," a University of Mississippi student interviewed by 60 Minutes, became a C.I. after a friend dropped off some LSD at his apartment for another acquaintance to pick up. It turned out both students were working as informants for the Metro Narcotics Unit. Threatened with more than 20 years in prison, Greg agreed to be a C.I. He was told he had to arrange 10 drug purchases. He did not know that many drug dealers, but he managed to make six buys over the course of a year and a half. When he was arrested anyway, he finally got a lawyer, who discovered that the pretext for the charges against him was an exchange between two police informants. When the lawyer brought that fact to the district attorney's attention, the charges were dropped.

60 Minutes also interviewed Matt Sander, who attended the same college as Andrew Sadek. Like Sadek, Sander was caught selling pot and pressured by Jason Weber to be a C.I.  "He kept repeating, 'This is the only time you can save yourself,'" Sander said. Sander claims Weber discouraged him from consulting a lawyer, which Weber denies. In any case, Sander turned Weber down and, with the help of a lawyer hired by his family, got two years' probation. Sadek, a first-time offender, probably could have gotten a similar deal if he had resisted Weber's pressure.

How does Weber justify tricking penny-ante pot dealers into betraying their friends so those friends can be tricked into the same mistake? "A drug dealer is a drug dealer, whether you sell a big amount or a small amount, whether you do it once or if you do it a hundred times," he told 60 Minutes. "While it's still against the law, part of our duty as law enforcement is to get the drugs off the streets and to get the drug dealers off the streets….If we don't try something or if we don't do that, then we're truly losing that—the war on drugs."

Recognizing that the actions for which he is busting college kids today will no longer be crimes tomorrow, Weber responds by redoubling his efforts, because otherwise he will lose an unwinnable war that the government never should have started. Prohibition fights the endless supply of illegal drugs with an inexhaustible store of mindless authoritarianism. 

Addendum: Reason TV's Anthony Fisher, who covered the Andrew Sadek case last June, notes that Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), in response to the 60 Minutes story, called for an end to the use of nonviolent, first-time drug offenders as confidential informants. Cohen told Fisher he plans to propose reforms, including requirements that C.I. candidates be read their Miranda rights and receive appropriate training. The bill presumably would apply only to federal cases, but it might have an indirect impact on local practices.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.