The Washington Post

In Sunrise, Fla., a drug war that puts citizens at risk

If I were a resident of Sunrise, Fla., I’d be more than a little concerned that in the name of stopping Floridians from getting high, my local law enforcement officials were putting me at risk.

For years, a sexy brunette posed as a Colombian cocaine supplier, helping Sunrise Police draw dozens of faraway drug buyers to town in a recurring dragnet that enabled her to live comfortably — and secretly — as a professional informant.

Her closely guarded anonymity now may be nearing an end.

A Broward judge ordered that the identity of Sunrise’s star informant must be revealed to the defense in the case of a Clearwater man arrested on trafficking charges in 2009.

The woman was a critical player in the undercover ploys police used to import criminals, bust them, then seize their cash and cars, the Sun Sentinel found in an investigation published in October.

The newspaper reported that the woman was the city’s most prolific and profitable snitch. Police paid her more than $800,000 over five years.

She regularly identified potential drug buyers from outside Sunrise — even from outside the state and country — then lured them into the western Broward suburb to buy kilos of cocaine at bargain prices from the police. Many of those deals were conducted at family restaurants near the city’s sprawling outlet mall.

She and the cops benefited. Police seized the tens of thousands of dollars the buyers brought to the deals, along with their cars and other items, bringing the city millions and fueling hefty overtime payments for the undercover officers.

In a deposition nearly a year ago, a Sunrise sergeant testified that the woman got a cut of the money she helped reel in, which at the time stood at $5 million, netted from 63 stings.

That’s right, Sunrise. Thanks to the promise of lucre from asset forfeiture, your local cops were bringing drug activity into your city, then conducting undercover deals where you eat and shop. And it isn’t just in Sunrise. Police conduct similar “reverse sting” operations all over the country. (Cops bring the drugs, the suspects bring the cash.) One such operation in 2011 in Arizona ended in a shootout that got a cop killed. (The suspect, oddly enough, was already working as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, unbeknownst to local law enforcement.) Florida police also have had their drug informants get killed.

Sunrise and Broward County, incidentally, are no strangers to the other dubious ways the drug war “protects” its citizens by putting them at risk. Just ask the families of Anthony Diotaiuto, Vincent Hodgkiss or Brenda Van Zwieten.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."



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Radley Balko · April 14, 2014