This story was produced by the nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
WHITEWATER, Wis. — Moments after Javonni Butler was busted for selling marijuana in 2011, he says, police officers offered him a deal: Buy drugs to help convict others, and they would “sweep this under the rug.”
Officers had just arrested Butler, a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater student and then-Whitewater City Council member, for selling what court records describe as small quantities of marijuana twice to another student wearing a recording device.
He faced two felony charges that each carried a maximum of three and a half years in prison and a $10,000 fine and a misdemeanor count of marijuana possession. His arresting officers, Butler says, warned that the charges would “ruin my life.”
Butler, however, declined. In October 2011, he pleaded guilty to one felony and one misdemeanor charge as part of a plea deal and was sentenced to 45 days in jail. He was suspended from all UW System schools and lost his eligibility for federal financial aid. And, because the state’s constitution bans convicted felons from holding public office, he was forced to resign his seat on the City Council.
Butler, 25, is still angry, saying students are being pressured to become informants to avoid the consequences he faced.
“It’s just pitiful, it’s disgusting,” Butler says. “They pretty much put kids in a spot until they have no choice but to snitch.”
A member of the Walworth County Drug Unit, which arrested Butler, declined comment on whether the unit still uses students as informants. But UW-Whitewater Police Chief Matt Kiederlen says his department has used about 20 students as confidential informants during the past two years.
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism checks at the UW System’s 13 four-year campuses turned up two additional sites — UW-Stout and UW-Eau Claire — at which officials also acknowledge using students arrested for drug activities to make controlled buys. A recent study conducted by Rehabs.com ranked UW-Eau Claire and UW-Whitewater No. 2 and No. 11 in the nation respectively for having the highest proportion of on-campus drug arrests.
UW-Milwaukee police declined to say whether they use confidential informants to make drug buys. But the agency has a policy regulating the department’s use of informants, including a rule that juveniles, felons on probation and the drug dependent “should be carefully looked at” when being considered for use.
Other campus police forces send students convicted of drug crimes to city police or county sheriff’s offices, which may ask students to become informants to beat criminal charges. Some say they do not have the resources to sustain such long-term investigations.
UW-Green Bay and UW-Oshkosh acknowledge using students as confidential informants, but to collect information for search warrants and subpoenas, not to buy drugs. UW-Oshkosh police say they use the practice outside of just drug cases, including harassment and assault cases.
Opponents say the use of students in undercover drug investigations could place them in dangerous situations and exploits their vulnerability to losing thousands of dollars of federal financial aid and tuition by being suspended from school.
“Law enforcement can use whatever arrow in their quiver they have,” says Alexandra Natapoff, professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and an expert on confidential informants.
Supporters defend the practice, saying it provides an opportunity for students to avoid felonies — just as police departments across the country treat non-students facing similar charges.
“They’re no different from anyone else,” Kiederlen says. “Mom and dad tend to feel like they’re still in school, but the reality is that they’re adults and they’re making adult decisions. And there are adult consequences.”
‘Highly dangerous operations’
While becoming a confidential informant may help students avoid consequences, undercover operations can turn deadly.
Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old Florida State University graduate, was pressured in 2008 to be an informant after Tallahassee, Florida, police searched her apartment and found a small amount of marijuana and ecstasy. But the buy turned out to be an armed robbery, and the robbers killed Hoffman after discovering her recording device, says Lance Block, a Florida attorney.
Block, who represented Hoffman’s parents in a lawsuit after their daughter’s murder, authored a 2009 Florida law that regulates informant use, a practice he says contradicts law enforcement’s purpose.
“The police are supposed to protect us from harm, not subject us to harm,” Block says. “And when law enforcement intentionally expose untrained civilians into these highly dangerous operations, they’re not protecting them from harm. … It’s one thing to get information from people secretly and confidentially. It’s another thing to throw them to the wolves, like they did with Rachel.”
Kiederlen says no student has been hurt while serving as an informant at UW-Whitewater. Each operation involves at least two detectives, who live-monitor the buy, he says. As the deal happens, three to four officers patrol the surrounding area.
Officers check the background of dealers to ensure students buy from those without violent pasts, he says. They also train informants.
“They are set up in such a way that if something is bad, they know what they can do to make themselves as safe as possible,” Kiederlen says. “We’re dealing with the drug world. It is unpredictable. We try with everything we have to predict putting them in the safest position we can, but there are always those unknowns.”
Kiederlen says his department works to protect the identity of confidential informants, taking precautions including using numbers rather than names in internal reports. State law prohibits police departments from releasing information that could identify an informant.
Still, Rick Coad, a Madison-based criminal defense attorney who has represented UW-Whitewater students facing drug charges, says criminal complaints describe when the buy happened. Those charged usually know who they sold to on that day, and informants may have to testify during trial.
Stephen Richards, a UW-Oshkosh criminal justice professor, says student informants often turn in their own friends. He warns informants might be “looking over their shoulder for the rest of their lives.”
“It’s a small world, and they’ve made lifelong enemies when they do that,” says Richards, who stresses that becoming an informant is a moral choice. He knows from experience.
After being arrested for conspiracy to distribute marijuana in 1982, Richards was asked to become an informant. He refused, was sentenced to nine years in prison and served three.
Practice common at UW-Whitewater
Almost all police departments use confidential informants, Kiederlen says, and his department’s policies are modeled on the best practices. Students who become informants are evaluated based on their suitability to become an informant, with a county prosecutor giving final approval.
Students who become informants to beat felony charges for selling marijuana typically have dealing supplies, such as scales and plastic bags, and “something else” such as a harder drug, Kiederlen says.
Potential informants are asked what types of drugs they are comfortable purchasing from dealers. Consequently, students sometimes buy harder drugs than they were arrested for, such as heroin, ecstasy or prescription medications, Kiederlen says.
One UW-Whitewater student used as a confidential informant, speaking on condition of anonymity, says he was arrested for selling marijuana and ended up buying ecstasy. Within three hours of his arrest, he says a campus detective searched his phone, identified potential targets and had him sign an agreement.
The student, facing felony charges, says he made multiple controlled buys on campus. He wore a recording device and a wrist watch with a camera. He usually purchased a few ounces of marijuana at a time and used marked bills that could be used for further evidence.
He says he was not suspended and the administration does not know he sold drugs on campus. He asked for anonymity to avoid hurting future job prospects. Kiederlen says speaking about their contract with others could void confidential informants’ contracts and result in them receiving the original charges.
In all, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism communicated with 10 current and former UW-Whitewater students who were arrested by either the UW-Whitewater police or the Walworth County Drug Unit for selling drugs to confidential informants or possessing marijuana.
Nine were asked to become an informant. All but the unnamed student described earlier refused either because of safety concerns, not knowing other dealers or not wanting to turn in their friends.
Eight, including Butler, were charged with felonies; one young man paid a fine. Some said they plan to seek expungement of those cases once they complete their sentences, meaning the cases would be sealed from public view.
Andrew Walter, an Elkhorn attorney who has represented students who have signed confidential informant agreements with the Walworth County Drug Unit, says the deals allow students to avoid felony charges for selling marijuana.
He also notes the harsh penalties outside of the judicial system, including loss of financial aid, blocked access to graduate school and limited job opportunities. Walter characterizes the state’s drug laws as “extremely harsh” and “ridiculous.”
Distribution of any amount of marijuana is a felony offense in Wisconsin, carrying a maximum sentence of three and a half years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Those interviewed by the Center who were convicted did not receive the maximum penalties.
Butler, the city council member and student, returned to campus after his suspension and graduated last May, three years after his 2011 arrest. He says Walworth County prosecutes college students as if they were “drug kingpins” and criticizes the university for supporting the use of students as informants.
He describes Whitewater’s decision to suspend students as a “money-making scheme.” He was suspended late in a semester, losing thousands of dollars in tuition and fees without receiving any academic credit.
“I’m ashamed to have gone to Whitewater,” Butler says.
Informants and campus crime
UW-Whitewater is about a 15-minute walk from downtown Whitewater, a city of about 15,000 surrounded by farmland. The fourth largest campus in the UW System, it began as a teachers college but now offers 49 majors to its 12,000 students.
The university made collegiate sport history earlier this year by being the first school in any NCAA division to win men’s football, basketball and baseball national championships in the same academic year. The Warhawks’ men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams both won national championships in 2014.
UW-Whitewater also has another reputation — for high drug arrests. A national study published in March by Rehabs.com, using 2012 numbers reported to the federal government, ranked the campus 11th in the nation in per capita in on-campus drug arrests. UW-Eau Claire was ranked No. 2, and UW-La Crosse, UW-Oshkosh and UW-Milwaukee were among the top 50.
The number of arrests for drug offenses at UW-Whitewater has risen sharply, from 45 in 2010 to 156 in 2012, according to the UW-Whitewater Police Department. That number includes those arrested on campus, in off-campus buildings such as fraternities and sororities and on surrounding public property.
Kiederlen attributes the increase to the development of the confidential informant program at UW-Whitewater in July 2012.
In 2013, however, arrests fell to 94, according to Kiederlen, a roughly 40 percent drop he partially attributes to dealers realizing the area is too risky for their operations.
Use widespread across universities, Wisconsin
UW-Whitewater is not alone. Both UW-Stout and UW-Eau Claire acknowledge using confidential informants and are part of the West Central Drug Task Force, which consists of law enforcement agencies from six western Wisconsin counties.
Eau Claire County Sheriff Ron Cramer, the task force’s project director, says students arrested for selling drugs are used to bust dealers who are “up the scale.” He says the task force prioritizes heroin and methamphetamine cases, rather than marijuana cases.
“We don’t want your twos and threes. We want your ace trump card,” Cramer says. “There might be a lot of college kids smoking or dealing, but we’re after the guy who’s bringing it on campus.”
UW-Eau Claire uses fewer than five informants per year on average, according to David Sprick, the campus police chief. UW-Stout uses eight to 10 students in a given year, according to campus police chief Lisa Walter.
Other UW System schools do not use informants because they rely on county or municipal departments with more resources, Kiederlen says.
The Walworth County Drug Unit, however, in the last two years has been increasingly tied up with heroin and prescription drug cases, says Capt. Dana Nigbor of the Walworth County Sheriff’s Office. Kiederlen says that left the campus “in a vacuum,” and “we couldn’t just let things go.”
So the university partnered with the city of Whitewater to use informants, with some assistance from the county drug unit. In an email to the Center, Whitewater police Capt. Brian Uhl sent a redacted copy of his department’s policies, its contracts and a statement but declined to answer further questions about the program.
Uhl wrote that police agencies across the world use informants to fight crime and “the Whitewater Police Department is no different in our desire to protect our community.”
But Natapoff, the Loyola Law School professor, says while informants might be needed to investigate political or corporate corruption, they are overused in “the low-level war on drugs.”
“We don’t use the informants in a targeted, careful way of going after organized crime,” she says. “We use informants the way that a bad cook uses salt.”
Exploitation or opportunity?
Natapoff says police departments use a variety of techniques to compel people to become informants, whether threatening a student’s access to federal financial aid or creating an arrest record that could cause someone to lose a job.
“There is no leverage that has been taken off the table,” Natapoff says.
Kiederlen, however, calls UW-Whitewater’s confidential informant program an “opportunity” for students.
“Those few people we use as confidential informants, it’s not going to carry with them for the rest of their lives,” he says. “They’ve made a mistake, shall we say they’ve paid back their debt, and now they’re going to move forward. So to me it’s a positive all the way around.”
But Richards, the UW-Oshkosh criminal justice professor, says that the use of informants disrupts the campus environment.
“I don’t appreciate university students used this way. I think it’s detrimental to the campus, and to what we try to do on a college campus, which is to provide a safe and supportive environment for university students to learn,” Richards says. “It disrupts our mission.”
Prosecuting campus drug cases
Typically, UW-Whitewater students enter pleas with the possibility of erasing the convictions from court records if they abide by certain terms. The Walworth County District Attorney declined comment on the plea deals offered to students.
Another approach is deferred prosecution agreements that allow offenders to get charges reduced or dismissed. That is how a group of UW-Milwaukee student drug dealers was handled in 2008 and 2009, says Jacob Corr, assistant district attorney at Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office.
In those cases, the UW-Milwaukee students were offered the chance to reduce their felonies to misdemeanors if they stayed out of trouble with the law, maintained full-time employment or stayed in school, Corr says. Students also were required to complete drug or alcohol treatment, if needed.
Rather than expungement, the county wanted students to have criminal records because the dealing had lured dangerous criminals who broke into homes and committed armed robberies near the campus, Corr says.
Coad, the Madison criminal defense attorney, questions the value of prosecuting such cases.
“Do we really want to convict them (students) of crimes and kick them out of school? They’re good kids. They have good GPAs and they’re good athletes,” Coad says. “Is that the way that we want to treat students who otherwise are on their way to becoming productive members of society?”
“If law enforcement wants to help people avoid consequences, if they want to help them … then give them drug treatment, give them a public health choice if they really want to help them,” Richards says.
“Because the problem with turning people into informers is that you’re teaching people to betray their friends. You’re teaching people to turn in their friends, the people that they know, the people that they care about.”
This report was produced in collaboration with Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Gilman Halsted. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism collaborates with WPR, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.