Use of snitch backfires on Walton drug investigators

Walton County Sheriff Joe Chapman has reassigned the head of his drug unit and is retraining members of the squad after the questionable arrest of a 53-year-old woman.

Renee Jones was stopped in her car last February for failing to maintain a lane, and deputies assigned to drug investigations ended up arresting her for possession of marijuana and crack cocaine. She stayed in jail for three days.

But Jones’ lawyer, David Boyle, says those drugs were planted.

At the behest of deputies, a local man — who was acting as an informant — went to Jones, tried to trade drugs for sex and, when she declined, then asked her for a ride, Boyle said.

He left the drugs in the console of Jones’ car so that deputies would have a reason to arrest her, Boyle said.

Chapman denies those charges. There were, however, problems with the arrest and with deputies giving an informant drugs and agreeing that he could use them to trade for sex, the sheriff said. Officials said the operation went wrong when the drug unit, listening in on the conversation via a wire worn by the informant, pulled over Jones, searched her car and made the arrest, even though she had said no several times to the informant’s offer.

“I’m going to sign a big check for her,” said Chapman, predicting that Jones will file a lawsuit against his office on the basis that deputies violated her civil rights.

Jones has declined comment.

Chapman said he told the drug unit in early February, “I’m getting too many call about Renee Jones. Y’all need to do something about it.”

Jones was stopped twice in February — each time for failure to maintain a lane. The first time no drugs were found.

Two weeks later, a member of the drug unit contacted the drug informant. The informant declined to answer questions for this article unless he was paid.

On the recording, obtained by the AJC, the informant tells Jones during the ride that he would leave drugs for her to show his appreciation for the lift.

Her response is unintelligible, but Boyle said she again said no to the drugs.

District Attorney Layla Zon says otherwise.

“She accepted. She did not refuse,” Zon said. “If they wanted to plant the dope, they could have done it without using this crazy (informant).”

The informant is heard telling deputies where to find the drugs, and moments later Jones is stopped.

Because of this case, Zon said, she put on hold pending drug cases for about two weeks, until the internal investigation was completed. And the sheriff says the drug unit’s work, too, has been temporarily stopped while deputies retrain.

The deputies’ tactics were revealed after the informant was jailed for violating the probation he received on a drug charge. He wrote the sheriff to complain that deputies had reneged on their promises to get him released. The man went on to write that there were “dirty deputies” working for Chapman and that he would give the sheriff names and details in exchange for money, a new pickup truck and termination of his probation.

After speaking with the informant, the sheriff called the district attorney and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. He decided to get another agency to conduct an investigation and to refer the case to the GBI if it was determined crimes were committed.

The investigation by Gwinnett County found that members of Walton’s drug unit did not commit a crime, but they did entrap Jones by pushing her to do something she might not have otherwise done.

Ultimately, the charges against Jones were dropped.

Two deputies were reassigned, and three others are being retrained. And Zon will now have to provide defense attorneys the internal investigation of the botched drug arrest every time she prosecutes a case brought by one of the five deputies who had a role in Jones’ arrest.

“The whole thing is mind-boggling,” Zon said. “I don’t believe they were intending to commit a crime. … I do believe they were conducting the stupidest investigation. I can’t defend the indefensible.”

And the deputies compounded the trouble with the case when they misled the prosecutor about how they came to arrest Jones. They did not tell her that they used an informant, information she would have had to share with the defense attorney.

“They found him because they wanted to get Renee Jones,” Boyle said. “I’ve never seen the police target users. The idea is to go up the food chain.”

Zon said deputies told her they found the drugs during a routine traffic stop.

“I was not happy that they brought us a case that made it look like it was (based) on a traffic stop,” Zon said. “The officers weren’t forthcoming.”

Use of confidential informants is a recognized risk for law enforcement, but it’s also often a necessity in drug investigations, the sheriff said.

“It’s like holding a business meeting with cockroaches,” Chapman said.

Loyola Law School professor Alexandra Natapoff, who writes a blog on Snitching.org, said the use of a confidential informant in the Jones case is another example of a “black market, off-the-record way of running the criminal justice system” that gets almost no scrutiny.

Still, the sheriff said, “Renee Jones is a known drug addictand not someone randomly set up for arrest.

Records show she was charged twice in 2004 with misdemeanors — possession of marijuana and driving without a license — but nothing since.

“Even though this was done wrong, she’s no angel,” Chapman said. “If … she came beating on his (the informant’s) door, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. That wasn’t the case. We went looking for her and that was wrong from the beginning.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X