In 2012, it was called Operation Glasshouse, an undercover drug investigation at three Riverside County high schools that resulted in the arrest of 22 students. Two years later, it was known as the high school drug sting that caused some California school districts to lose their enthusiasm for high school drug stings.
Now a Riverside County Superior Court judge has dismissed the lawsuit at the center of the controversy around Operation Glasshouse. The 2013 suit was brought by Jesse Snodgrass, who was a 17-year-old Chaparral High School senior with autism when he was arrested as part of the sting. The suit alleged that the Temecula Valley Unified School District had breached its mandatory duties by allowing a deputy from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department to manipulate Snodgrass – a friendless student who had bipolar disorder, trouble keeping up with conversations and a history of being bullied – as part of an undercover drug sting.
On Monday, Catherine Snodgrass, Jesse’s mother, said her son would appeal the ruling. “The judge is giving the administration free rein and that’s troubling,” she said.
The lawsuit was the first in California to try to hold a school district responsible for protecting students in special education from allegedly being manipulated in a police drug sting, according to Snodgrass’s lawyer, Wendy Housman.
But in a ruling filed with the court on Nov. 10, Judge Raquel A. Marquez found the district not liable for damages, stating that district officials had not worked with the sheriff’s department to deliberately target Snodgrass. In addition, Marquez ruled, district officials had immunity from liability for two reasons: because they were cooperating with police and because California Government Code 820.2 protects public employees who are making routine policy decisions.
The dismissal of the case by the judge “validates that the district’s level of involvement in the undercover operation was only to cooperate with law enforcement,” the Temecula Valley Unified School District said in a statement.
Undercover high school drug stings have been happening across the nation since before President Richard Nixon declared “a war on drugs” in 1971, said Stephen Downing, a retired deputy chief with the Los Angeles Police Department who ran the department’s narcotics enforcement program from 1973 to 1977. Downing is now a national board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a criminal justice group that aims to end the war on drugs, and has closely followed the Snodgrass case.
But most students who are arrested do not file suit contesting their arrest, Downing said. “People fear standing up to a district attorney,” he said. The Snodgrass lawsuit provided a rare look at the workings of an undercover high school drug sting and launched a barrage of negative publicity about Operation Glasshouse, including a 2014 Rolling Stone magazine piece titled “The Entrapment of Jesse Snodgrass,” and a video by the Vice Media group titled “The War on Kids.”
In March 2014, the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group, sent a letter to all school districts in Riverside County alerting officials to recent school drug stings, the alleged targeting of special needs students and a California Department of Education investigation into Temecula Valley Unified School District’s process for expelling students in special education.
The publicity “has resulted in Riverside and San Bernardino not doing the drug stings anymore,” Downing said. The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that it did not conduct high school drug stings in 2014 and has no plans to do so in 2015, according to department spokesman Deputy Armando Muñoz. San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Deputy Olivia Bozek said that there have been no high school drug stings in the county “in the last couple of years.” (See table below for a list of recent high school undercover drug operations.)
Undercover drug stings were ended in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2005, after concerns that the stings did not lead to the arrest of drug dealers, were difficult to prosecute because of allegations of entrapment and often targeted students who had special needs and emotional issues.
“Instead of the guy slinging dope on campus, you wind up with a random collection of whichever kids might be naive, stupid, persuadable or gullible enough to find a joint for a stranger,” said Kevin Reed, LA Unified’s legal counsel at the time, in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece.
Law enforcement agencies have initiated school drug stings because the arrests “added to their statistics,” and the agencies could use those statistics when they applied for federal grants, said Downing. A 2013 American Civil Liberties Union Report, The War on Marijuana in Black and White, noted that the federal Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program disperses about $250 million a year to jurisdictions across the country for law enforcement activities, which are evaluated in part through the number of people arrested.
But the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said that the drug stings were not related to a drive to increase the number of arrests. “Department funding is not affected by drug arrest statistics,” Muñoz said.
As described in the lawsuit, Snodgrass and other students, including about six students in special education, were befriended by an undercover deputy sheriff known as “Dan,” who allegedly badgered them into buying small amounts of drugs for him. According to Catherine Snodgrass, Jesse was new to Chaparral High, lacked the ability to pick up on social cues because of his autism and made only one friend in his first semester – Dan, who introduced himself to Jesse on the first day of school and talked with him in graphics art class.
In 60 text messages, Dan implored Jesse to find him marijuana, the suit said, and he gave Jesse a $20 bill with which to do so. Off-campus in September 2012, about a month after school started, Jesse approached a man who appeared to be homeless, paid $20 for a plastic bag containing enough marijuana for half a joint and then delivered the bag to Dan, the suit said. Dan gave him another $20 for marijuana a month later and Jesse returned to the homeless man and made another small purchase.
“When you have special needs, you’ll do anything for a friend,” Catherine Snodgrass said.
On Dec. 11, 2012, a swarm of officers entered Temecula Valley High, Chaparral High and Rancho Vista High and arrested the students, who were each charged with a felony for possession for sale of a controlled substance. The officers seized marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, heroin, LSD and illegal prescription drugs. The sheriff’s department declined to disclose the amounts of drugs seized.
All 22 students were expelled from school. Snodgrass later had his expulsion overturned by an administrative law judge who ruled that the district had left Snodgrass “to fend for himself, anxious and alone, against an undercover police officer” and that Snodgrass “has overwhelmingly demonstrated that his actions were a manifestation of his disability.”
A judge granted Snodgrass extenuating circumstances for the felony charge and he was given six months of probation.
Brendan Hamme, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California who has followed the Snodgrass case, said that the drug stings in Los Angeles Unified and Temecula Valley Unified “are by and large representative” of typical high school drug stings. The stings involve small quantities of drugs and “students with disabilities, loners who have difficulty making friends, or students who use marijuana themselves but aren’t dealers by any stretch,” he said.
Despite the dismissal of the Snodgrass case, Hamme said, “the suit is indicative of a growing wave of resistance to these drug stings.”