We don’t know if Donald Andrews, the Scotia smoke shop owner who was arrested in April after a raid by the county Sheriff’s Department and Scotia police, was technically the victim of malicious prosecution or false arrest, as he alleges in his notice of claim (precursor to a lawsuit). But that he was innocent there is no doubt. The Sheriff’s Department already acknowledged that after security cameras — Andrews’ own — showed he had been set up, by one of its confidential informants planting cocaine in the shop.
These informants, who are either paid or seeking favorable treatment in their own case, are routinely used in drug investigations. And they and their vehicles are routinely searched by law enforcement officials to make sure they don’t have drugs when they go in.
The Sheriff’s Department has rules and procedures calling for such searches, but something obviously went wrong in this case. The search either wasn’t thorough enough, didn’t happen at all, or, worse, the informant’s handlers knew he had something on him and didn’t care.
This is troubling on many levels. An innocent man suffered, spending a weekend in jail, losing business for two weeks while his shop was closed, having his reputation tarnished. The Sheriff’s Department’s reputation and credibility have also been hurt.
And the case raises questions about whether others who have been convicted with evidence from the same or other confidential informants were also innocent, but had no cameras to prove it. In fact, District Attorney Robert Carney has had to notify the defense attorneys in seven other cases where the informant was used. Most of the cases have either been resolved or don’t depend on this informant, but at least one pending case could be in jeopardy.
Carney is also reviewing the policies of all law enforcement agencies in the county regarding the use of informants in undercover investigations, and looking at every case that comes in. A similar review of the Schenectady Police Department’s policies by a grand jury, after a police officer stole drugs from the evidence locker, led to a scathing report and a variety of procedural and management improvements there.
We have no problem with undercover investigations of smoke shops, convenience stores, bars and other places to see if they are illegally selling drugs, cigarettes, alcohol or other goods. Or running food stamp scams, as a Schenectady store owner and his son are now accused of. But it has to be done right.