From Voices of Central Pennsylvania
By Zac Taylor
Harrisburg’s political will to be tough on drug dealers in school zones has turned into a veritable industry of snitches in Centre County, especially in the area in and around Penn State University.
With a mandatory sentence of two to four years to hang over the heads of college students caught with a joint’s worth of marijuana in their pockets, District Attorney Michael Madeira has been able to turn students against students, setting up drug deals that some say never would have happened.
“A kid came into my room with an undercover cop and bought some pot,” said one student who eventually turned snitch. Jeff, who asked not to use his real name, was maintaining a 3.5 Grade Point Average and until two years ago had never been in trouble with the law. Police charged him with three felony counts for three sales, and even after cooperating with the district attorney’s office, Jeff pleaded to a lesser charge, but remains a convicted felon.
The school zone mandatory minimum mandates that anyone caught dealing drugs within 1,000 feet of any school zone be sentenced to two to four years behind federal bars.
The statute was designed to discourage drug sales in the vicinity of elementary schools in big cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. But university zones are not immune from the SZM jurisdiction–qualifying most of the State College area as a school zone.
Madeira told Voices that using “drug informants” helps lead to bigger busts, but some local legal experts disagree.
“They are going down the food chain instead of up,” local defense attorney Andrew Shubin told Voices.
Centre County Judge Brad Lunsford agreed.
“For the most part they generally do not climb up the distribution scale,” he said.
In a scenario Shubin described as “typical,” a small time dealer is faced with the option of serving heavy jail time or becoming a snitch. If he chooses to snitch, he asks a friend to sell him a small amount of marijuana. The friend obliges, and makes the sale to the small time dealer, who is usually escorted by an undercover police officer while the deal is happening. Later, after one, or several deals are made, the friend gets arrested for dealing drugs in a school zone, and then he too faces the same option. Then the cycle starts again.
Jeff sold marijuana to his friend-turned-snitch (with his undercover cop escort close at hand) three times before he knew what was coming.
When police finally did arrest Jeff, they charged him with three felony counts of drug trafficking, each carrying a two-year mandatory minimum sentence if convicted.
“I thought they were just going over my head – trying to intimidate me,” Jeff said, referring to the day that police explained the charges he was facing.
After the initial arrest, police told Jeff that the only way to avoid a heavy prison sentence would be to help police capture other drug dealers. Jeff spent the next four months trying to arrange a drug buy. He walked the streets, made phone calls, pestered the people he knew who used marijuana, and put himself in situations he described as dangerous, all to save his own skin.
Jeff eventually found another student to buy drugs from; someone not known to be a drug dealer, he said. In fact, as far as Jeff knew, this was the first time the student had ever sold marijuana.
“It was a really horrible experience,” Jeff said, explaining that he told police that he would only make the buy if the police offered the buyer the same snitch deal.
Jeff bought the marijuana from the student in the presence of an undercover police officer. Police arrested the student immediately and according to Jeff, that student spent three months in prison and never had the opportunity to save his own skin.
Though Jeff’s charges were reduced, he has a permanent police record showing a felony conviction. He had been an education major, but has now switched career paths since a felony on his record would bar him from ever teaching in a classroom.
Jeff is not alone. Since 2004, Centre County has processed 284 charges of drug possession with intent to deliver prosecuted by the district attorney’s office, according to the county prothonotary. State College Police Spokesman Capt. Dana Leonard estimates that nine out of ten of those arrests were made with the use of a confidential informant, or drug snitch. Leonard also estimated that half of all charges in Centre County, including drug possession with intent to deliver, involve college students.
Madeira denied that the use of drug snitches in Centre County is as ineffective as his critics say. He said that while large quantities of small time drug dealers will get busted, the process does occasionally succeed in bringing bigger fish to justice.
Madeira said he and his assistants compiled a list of people his office has prosecuted for drug possession with intent to deliver (drug dealing) that he would consider “big busts.” He named Michael Alexander, Antonio Alexander, Ramont Edmonds, Quasim Knight, Ryan Boozer, and Michael Wright.
Madeira declined to provide the rest of his list to Voices, and could not elaborate on the quantities of drugs involved with specific arrests or the dollar amounts. He did say that in Centre County, a half-ounce to an ounce of cocaine or a pound of marijuana are considered big busts.
To what end?
In the spring of 2007 the Daily Collegian, Penn State’s student-run newspaper, ran a story on 28 drug arrests made at the same time. According to the article, a large majority of the 28 arrests were students, and most of the students were snitches.
Asked why the district attorney would choose to round up all 28 at one time, Leonard said one reason is that dealers are connected to each other through co-conspiracy.
“The other reason is for the public relations effect,” Leonard said, adding that sometimes the prosecutor’s office coordinates the arrests simultaneously in order to make the public more aware of the effort to stop the drug trade.
While the use of confidential informants is controversial by State College standards, Madeira claims that this practice is the best avenue.
“It is the only practical way to do it,” Madeira said. “Any other means would be, on an appreciable scale, cost prohibitive.”
But defense attorney Tony De Boef said that while it is the “simplest” method, there are other options. De Boef is a candidate for district attorney in the upcoming primary.
One method, De Boef said, is to use an undercover police officer to make the buys, rather than an informant who is only participating in the investigation in order to avoid a hefty prison sentence.
“You’re cutting out a party that might be biased, or a party that might have some credibility issues at the time of trial,” De Boef said.
Drug dealers often find themselves addicted to the substances they sell on the streets, De Boef added, and submerging a dealer into world in which he is selling an illegal product he is clearly addicted to is detrimental to that dealer’s safety and health.
Capt. Leonard said other methods do exist that work just as well.
“With drug cases, you need evidence,” Leonard said, explaining that there are several ways to gather that evidence including eyewitnesses, forensic evidence, electronic surveillance, on-scene surveillance, even ‘good Samaritans’ who just call the police office and give police information leading to the arrests of drug dealers.
“The confidential informant is an important tool, but it’s only one aspect of how drug investigations are conducted,” Capt. Leonard said.
Mislabeled “school zones”
For opponents of the school zone mandatory minimum, the fact that the General Assembly included universities as school zones is a mystery.
“I believe these mandatory minimum sentencing laws were passed for more urban areas where drug dealers are literally on playgrounds, and calling children over to sell them drugs,” Stacy Parks Miller, criminal defense attorney for the law firm Miller Kistler and Campbell said. “That is simply not our community.”
Parks Miller served as the first assistant district attorney in Clearfield County from 1996 to 2001. She is set to challenge De Boef and Karen Arnold in this month’s Democratic primary for Centre County’s district attorney seat.
Parks Miller said that the jurisdiction of the school zone mandatory minimum spanning a radius of 1,000 feet around any piece of Penn State property—including the golf course—is inappropriate for college students who would otherwise be facing a more fitting punishment.
The application of any mandatory minimum is ultimately up to the district attorney. While current District Attorney Madeira does not necessarily apply the mandatory to every single drug trafficking case, he uses the threat of applying the mandatory as leverage to coax a dealer to become a snitch, Parks Miller said.
De Boef agreed that the use of the school zone mandatory minimum sentence in Centre County does not fit the crime.
“Let’s face it, there are people who are drug dealers, and then there are people who are just university students,” De Boef said.
Public schools and universities are not the only buildings covered under the school zone mandatory minimum. De Boef said school zones includes pre-schools day care centers, cooking schools, beauty schools and any other education building that is licensed by the state.
The intent of the law
According to some in the legal community—albeit those who sit behind the bench and at the side of the defense— mandatory minimums are not very popular laws. Any time a mandatory sentence for a crime is imposed, power shifts from the judge— who usually has the discretion to tailor make a sentence to a perpetrator as he or she sees fit—to the prosecutor who can force the application of the mandatory minimum, essentially forcing the courtroom to play by his or her rules.
“Intelligent and reasonable minds will agree that [the application of mandatory minimums] is case specific,” Judge Lunsford said, adding that a mandatory minimum applied to certain crimes, like a robbery, has its merits.
“I would like to ask the person in a convenience store at 4:30 in the morning about his opinion on whether or not a five-year mandatory minimum should be imposed for carrying a gun after he’s just been robbed at gunpoint.” he said.
But that reasoning does not stop others, like Parks Miller, from believing that legislators who rush to pass mandatory minimum sentencing laws, like the school zone drug mandatory minimum, are less than aware of what actually goes on.
“I think that people who support and pass legislation with mandatory minimum sentences are out of touch with how they are put into play,” Parks Miller said.
Miller said that while mandatory minimum sentences might sound appealing to a legislator trying to please constituents, the repercussions of the power shift from judge to prosecutor jeopardize any attempt at fair and uniform sentencing.
But the trickle down effect in Centre County is felt the hardest by college students like Jeff, who despite his self- described “spotless” academic career, will permanently be labeled as drug dealer for selling a thimbleful of weed to a friend.