Teri Sopp, Criminal Trial Attorney
Local law enforcement agencies are engaging in a noxious practice that does nothing to stop drug use in Nassau County — the controlled buy of small amounts of drugs from street-level sellers.
While it is never good to have street-level drug sales in our community, the practice of conducting “controlled buys” pitting one drug-seller against another (for a benefit to the first one) does nothing to stop the flow of illicit substances in the community. Instead, it creates undue burden (and cost) on law enforcement, the jail, the courts and ultimately, the prisons.
Here’s how it works: an individual who is arrested (usually for possession of marijuana, cocaine or a few painkillers) is given the option to enter a “deferred arrest” program — that is, the individual will not be arrested at that time. The individual is given the opportunity — usually without the advice of a lawyer — to sign on to work for law enforcement as a “confidential informant.” This confidential informant is then directed to contact his or her friends or dealers to buy or sell small amounts of drugs.
Once the confidential informant arranges for the transaction — usually a buy — law enforcement sets up the deal. Between three and six officers are normally involved, and the undercover set up and monitoring the “deal” takes about three hours. During all of this time, all of the officers involved in this particular deal wait and watch. Sometimes the deal is for $40.00 worth of rocks of crack cocaine or two or three pain pills.
The officers may direct the confidential informant to make sure the transactions take place near a school, church, park or playground — a location which results in the filing of a more serious charge (which carries more prison time). We now have drug buys (and sales) taking place near our schools and parks at the direction of and under the supervision of law enforcement.
Additionally, law enforcement officers may have the informant continue to make buys from their contact simply to “stack” the charges against the dealer. The confidential informant usually receives probation no matter how much drug activity he or she had been involved in, and the “target” goes to prison for two or three years. This approach does nothing to actually stop future drug activity — to the contrary, it encourages it. These types of sales could go on endlessly — wouldn’t it be better to actually conduct bona fide investigations to determine the source of the drugs and stop the drugs at the source?
If the first individual — the “C.I.” — was represented by the Office of the Public Defender, the “targets” cannot ethically be represented by that office after their arrests — it is a conflict of interest. Five entirely new state agencies have been set up to handle these conflict cases — the Office of Criminal Conflict Counsel. In Nassau County, there is one full-time attorney who does nothing but handle these cases; this position has gone from a part-time to full-time in just five years because of the volume of cases.
Every case not only places a cost burden on state agencies, but on local institutions as well. Every time a new case comes into the system, the need grows for more jail space, more prosecutors, more public defenders, more office space, more clerical staff, more judges, more court staff and more courthouses.
Does it make sense to use our limited resources in this manner?
Our new sheriff has promised a review of all aspects of his department; hopefully, he will take a closer look at the practice of conducting “controlled buys” and the resulting consequences and will use our valued resources in a more judicious manner.
Editor’s Note: A Board Certified Criminal Trial Lawyer, Teresa Sopp has been a practicing attorney in Northeast Florida for more than 32 years and has been in private practice for more than nineteen years. She is one of the few Board Certified Criminal Trial Lawyers in private practice in Northeast Florida.
As an Assistant Public Defender for the Fourth Judicial Circuit of Florida (1980-89), Ms. Sopp was a Felony Division Chief, and was a member of the Special Defense Division (defense of major crimes and high profile cases), and served as a co-counsel on capital and first degree murder cases. She has tried every type of criminal case from DUI to first-degree murder cases.
A Graduate of Florida State University College of Law with a Juris Doctorate (1978), Attorney Sopp has also attended several trial practice colleges and continuing education programs. Ms. Sopp has also served as an Adjunct Professor at the Florida Coastal School of Law and as a Professor at the American Institute of Paralegal Studies.
February 18, 2013 12:35 p.m.