By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Law enforcement agencies would need parental or guardian approval to use juvenile informants in criminal investigations under a new legislative proposal.
The bill by Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, would prohibit police agencies from using under-18 informants without such permission. It also would give parents and guardians the right to a court order to stop a violation.
Juveniles are most often used as confidential informants after they’ve been arrested on drug charges and asked to help police in exchange for having charges dropped, Irwin said.
“This is a real problem,” he said. When juveniles are caught, “law enforcement has a special ability to hold punishment over their head and to encourage them to engage in actions that are potentially dangerous to make that Sword of Damocles” – the threat of a criminal or juvenile delinquency record and jail – “go away.”
However, officials of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association and the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan expressed some concerns about the bill as written.
Irwin said the proposal would require law enforcement officials to provide more information to parents and “take away the additional threat police have to manipulate young people into dangerous situations.”
Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, cited a case in Oakland County where a juvenile was used as an informant to make a drug buy from a “violent offender” without parental knowledge. The juvenile was “at risk, absolutely,” he said, but not injured.
In cooperation with Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, Kowall is drafting a Senate bill similar to Irwin’s but one that would clarify that under-age tobacco sales and some alcohol sales would be covered.
But Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz said Irwin’s bill is too broad and could be interpreted as covering juveniles who are crime victims or witnesses.
“Confidential informants are a very valuable tool in keeping the public safe and frequently lead to convictions and taking dangerous people off the street,” said Fitz, the president-elect of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association.
“If a police agency is trying to recruit a student to make controlled buys, clearly there’s a parental interest. We understand that,” he said. But “we have on occasion had instances where a parent was a suspect, and in those instances we have obviously not gone to the parent.”
And Terry Jungel, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, questioned the need for such a law.
As a matter of common sense, “it would be totally inappropriate to use a juvenile as an informant without informing the parents,” Jungel said, adding that he hasn’t seen a situation in Michigan where juveniles were used as informants without letting their parents or guardians know.
Irwin’s proposal, he said, would “address the exception instead of the rule.”
But Rep. Harvey Santana, D-Detroit, said it’s common to see young teen-agers used as informants in drug cases, sometimes at serious risk to their lives. “If you take parental rights away, what is left?
“I’ve got 14-year-olds selling dope on the street corner. I’ve got 15-year-olds selling dope in dope houses,” said Santana, a co-sponsor of Irwin’s bill.
If they’re revealed as informants, “they’re all going to get whacked, shot, killed,” he said.
Jan Miner, an attorney who handles child welfare and juvenile delinquency cases in the Bay County Public Defender’s Office, questioned whether children should be used at all as informants but added, “Sometimes you have to.
“I don’t see a lot of our kids being used as informants” in the county, said Miner, a member of the State Bar Representative Assembly, but if they are, parents or guardians should “absolutely, unequivocally” be involved “at some level.”
“Children are very susceptible, very easy to manipulate,” she said.
Shelli Weisberg, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said, “We’ve heard stories about the use and abuse of juveniles,” and the proposed law would be “in the best interests of everyone, especially if your kid is involved in police work.”
Two states – Florida and California — have such laws now, said Deborah Paruch, an associate professor law at University of Detroit-Mercy.
Paruch said that even requiring parental consent may be insufficient to prevent abuses, so perhaps a judge’s approval should also be required. “We can see situations where parents aren’t paying real close attention to what their kids are doing.
“We’re putting them in a high level of risk,” she said of juvenile informants. “Is this the only way they can obtain this information, or is it just the easiest way?”
And, Paruch said, “Would you want your own child involved in this? I don’t think so.”
Cosponsors include Detroit Democratic Reps. Rose Mary Robinson and Brian Banks. Others are Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills; Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake; and Jon Switalski, D-Warren.
The bill is in the House Criminal Justice Committee.