Minneapolis drug case falls apart, raising questions about existence of secret informant
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, on April 14, 2021, Andre Moore described his experience with the police when he was arrested. He says he has PTSD from his treatment at the hands of police whom he says targeted him with trumped-up felony drug charges. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii | Star Tribune)
Shotguns and halogen lights ready, the Minneapolis SWAT team heaved a battering ram into the entrance of the North Side duplex and burst up to the second story.
It was still early on the February 2020 morning. Andre Moore stirred awake to a voice shouting about a warrant. He stumbled out of bed in pajama pants, expecting to find a friend playing a joke. Instead he ran into a dozen police officers ripping apart his living room. Moore dropped to the carpet and raised his hands in surrender.
The officers left that day with one handgun, 2 pounds of meth and Moore in zip ties. If convicted, Moore faced 13 years in prison.
But it didn’t go that way. Over the next seven months, what had looked like a rock-solid case turned to dust as two public defenders uncovered what a judge called a “reckless disregard for truth” in the police investigation.
Chief among the questions that unraveled the case: Did Minneapolis police officer Tony Partyka embellish key information from a trusted informant — or worse?
“We think that the confidential informant in this case may not have existed,” said Tanya Bishop, one of Moore’s public defenders.
The case exposes the inherent conflict at the heart of confidential informants as a tool in American policing. In order to be effective, informants must be shrouded in secrecy. But that secrecy can make it impossible to tell how effective informants really are.
Informants trade intelligence to police, often for money or mercy in their own criminal cases. They can be valuable to helping solve crimes. As the homicide rate climbed in Minneapolis over the past year, detectives have frequently cited confidential informants in reports as key to making arrests.
But lack of accountability also can lead to abuses of power. In Texas, Houston police are besieged by a scandal that began with an officer lying about a tip from an informant that led to a fatal gun battle with two residents.
In Rochester, drug-user-turned-informant Matthew Klaus overdosed after making police-sanctioned heroin purchases, igniting a push at the Minnesota Capitol for policies to stop police from exploiting informants.
In a Hennepin County case last year, a judge ordered prosecutors to disclose details of an informant in a sealed affidavit, following allegations that Minneapolis officer Andrew Schroeder fabricated where he got a tip that led to drug charges for a man named Cedric Shepherd. Instead, prosecutors dropped the charges.
Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder said both the Moore and Shepherd cases were under internal review. He said informants are only one piece of an investigation, and they may possess invaluable information that police can’t obtain through other means. But police must keep them secret; informants have been murdered in Minneapolis after their identities were revealed.
“For this reason, we are exceptionally protective,” Elder said. “There have been instances where we have not disclosed, even to the Courts, and the cases have been dismissed. This lack of information … is not due to dishonesty by the police but rather to protect the identity of the informant.”
Hennepin County Attorney’s Office spokesman Chuck Laszewski said the informants in the Moore and Shepherd cases do exist, and these acquittals are not reflective of a systemic problem.
“These types of hearings happen routinely and we are usually successful,” Laszewski said. “Sometimes we are not and, as in this case, we respect the court’s orders.”
Moore’s public defenders argue the case illustrates the steep hill that defendants must climb to prove when police abuse trust. “If not for this series of coincidences, it’s unclear if officer Partyka would ever be caught doing these things,” said Moore’s other attorney, Alicia Granse.
Bishop met Moore five days after the drug raid, at his arraignment.
Her new client said he knew the officer who’d arrested him, Partyka, from a traffic stop two months prior. “He beat me up,” Moore told Bishop.
She made a note, only half expecting it to pan out.
A judge set Moore’s bail at $125,000, guaranteeing he would stay in jail for the remainder of the case.
Bishop noticed the police report featured a mug shot of Moore’s face bloodied and swollen. Her client hadn’t looked like that in court. That meant Partyka had taken the photo from an old arrest, one in which Moore had taken a beating.
The warrant also gave her pause. It was a no-knock warrant, the kind reserved for high-risk searches of dangerous suspects. To get a judge to sign off, Partyka swore he’d interviewed a confidential reliable informant — jargon for an informant with a proven track record — who’d seen Moore with a handgun and selling drugs.
According to Partyka, police had corroborated the tip by pulling plastic bags with a “powdery substance” from Moore’s trash.
The evidence against her client didn’t look good, but the warrant seemed suspiciously vague, Bishop said. The informant knew her client as “Andre Moore.” In her experience, informants usually know drug dealers by a street alias — not their legal name. The description of Moore — 6 feet, 220 pounds, dreadlocks — matched Moore’s driver’s license to the letter. And Partyka wrote that he — and not the informant — identified Moore as the suspect the informant had seen selling drugs.
“I knew something stunk,” said Bishop. “I felt in my heart of hearts that the confidential informant may not have been a real person.”
She remembered what Moore had said about a past encounter with Partyka. Two months earlier, Moore had been charged with obstructing justice. The charges had been dropped. Granse, another public defender, had represented Moore.
She called Granse, who confirmed Moore had been beaten and that Partyka was part of it. And she had it on tape.
The Traffic Stop
Bishop watched the video footage that showed Partyka and his partner patrolling north Minneapolis on a dark morning in December.
They pulled Moore over. Partyka said Moore “failed to signal 100 feet prior to turning.” He and his partner walked up to Moore’s car, with Partyka shining a light into the passenger’s window. Partyka suddenly panicked, shouting. “Put your hands up!”
In his report, Partyka said he thought Moore was reaching for a weapon. He jammed a Taser into Moore’s torso, threatened to pull the trigger. Backup arrived and helped rip Moore out of his car, slammed him onto the frozen asphalt and piled on top of him, striking him. Moore writhed and moaned in agony, begging for them to stop. Neighbors emerged from their homes to see the scene unfolding.
Moore told the officers that all he had in the car was alcohol. The officers searched Moore’s car and found a glass pipe on the passenger seat — but no weapon.
Moore was booked in jail and charged with obstruction of justice. When he got out on bail and visited the hospital, he’d sustained a broken nose, facial abrasions, a head injury and a black eye, medical records show.
The Minneapolis prosecutor told Granse they would drop those charges, she suspects because they didn’t want to show the video to a jury. A week later, Partyka led the drug raid into Moore’s home.
Watching the footage, something new clicked for Bishop: Partyka is a patrol officer. Why is a patrol officer writing a warrant for a high-risk drug case?
“Usually, it’s the drug squad that’s going to write these warrants,” said Bishop. “I’m like, this traffic cop, who happened to fracture our client’s face, happened to write the warrant?”
Granse noticed something Bishop had missed. In the police report, Partyka had replaced the default header with a nickname: “Moore Money Moore Problems.”
She recognized the line from a Notorious B.I.G. song about the tribulations of drug dealing. She was surprised that a police officer would include it on a public document.
Bishop and Granse decided to team up on the case.
Over the next couple of months, they worked to rip holes in the warrant.
They said Partyka’s description of Moore — the one that matched his driver’s license — was wrong. Moore had embellished on his license paperwork. He was 5 feet 11, not 6 feet tall. At the time of his arrest, he weighed 180 pounds — not 220.
The warrant gave no dates of when the informant had seen Moore with the contraband, meaning the intel could have been stale, they said. And Partyka never corroborated the tip with surveillance or a controlled drug buy.
They demanded Partyka provide the informant’s contract, meeting dates and proof the person had bona fides to be a “confidential reliable informant.”
Prosecutor Allison Reyerson countered that all of this was speculation. Partyka had corroborated the informant’s tip with a “plastic sealed baggie with white powdery substance” from Moore’s trash, she said. Plus, the search had been fruitful.
Bishop and Granse said Moore lived in a duplex. The garbage cans weren’t labeled. So how did Partyka know the bag with drug residue came from Moore’s unit?
As for the search yielding evidence, they cited an opinion from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor involving similar allegations: “It is tempting in a case like this, where illegal conduct by an officer uncovers illegal conduct by a civilian, to forgive the officer. After all, his instincts, although unconstitutional, were correct. But a basic principle lies at the heart of the Fourth Amendment: Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Judge Paul Scoggin agreed to interview Partyka in private about the informant.
On June 16, Scoggin told Bishop that Partyka had assured him of the informant’s existence under oath. Partyka also explained the traffic stop arrest. He’d “primarily dealt with another passenger, and the other officer primarily dealt with Mr. Moore.”
That was a lie, Bishop said. Partyka was the officer who accused Moore of reaching for the weapon and helped throw him to the street. Partyka had spent four hours with Moore afterward waiting to get a warrant for a DWI blood draw. He hadn’t spoken a word to the passenger. “He came to Your Honor, he went under oath, he lied,” said Bishop. “He perjured himself. There’s no mincing about it.”
The defense said this proved Partyka couldn’t be trusted, even under oath. “Partyka has consistently demonstrated a flagrant disregard for Mr. Moore’s constitutional rights, for the truth, and for the dignity of this very Court,” they wrote in a filing.
Before this, Bishop and Granse’s argument had focused on the informant. This was the first time they’d accused Partyka of beating up Moore.
Scoggin said Bishop had “sandbagged” him by waiting until after he’d talked to Partyka to bring it up, according to a court transcript.
Still, the judge would give her the chance to put Partyka on the stand.
In July, Bishop and Granse returned to Scoggin’s courtroom for a Franks Hearing — a rare pretrial hearing to explore if police obtained a warrant illegally. Under questioning by Granse, Partyka told the court he’d pulled over Moore because he’d recognized him from a person-of-interest bulletin — not because Moore waited too long to signal a turn, as he’d said that night.
Partyka acknowledged he helped pin Moore to the ground after he saw Moore reaching. He threw elbow strikes to Moore’s torso, he said, but he denied responsibility for Moore’s mangled face.
“You never found a gun?” asked Granse.
“I did not,” said Partyka.
Partyka talked about his experience with guns, why he had reason to be fearful. In 2019 alone, he said, he’d confiscated about 50 guns in traffic stops like this one.
“Would it surprise you if I told you that, according to the city of Minneapolis, 125 guns were collected in the entire period of 2019 by all of the police officers in the 4th Precinct?” asked Granse.
Partyka said that number sounded low; he estimated twice that many had been seized that year.
Even by Partyka’s off-the-cuff math, the judge said he was “having some trouble.”
“You’re telling me that on a personal level you’ve been responsible — you have been involved in … 20% of all the gun seizures?” asked Scoggin.
Granse shifted to the nickname Partyka had given the police report — “Moore Money Moore Problems.”
It was indeed a reference to a rap song, Partyka said. But the nickname was just a device to remember the case. He saw nothing “derogatory” about it.
Granse asked the officer if he’d had much experience writing warrants as a patrolman who deals mostly with traffic stops and street crime.
He’d written three, he said, including for Moore’s house, in his five years working for Minneapolis police. The others were for DWI cases.
Granse asked about the bag of drug residue listed in the warrant to corroborate the informant. She asked prosecutors to bring down the evidence from the trash pulls.
She took out the bags that Partyka had sworn in the warrant contained a white powdery substance.
There was no white powder. The bags were empty.
The judge examined the bags and confirmed it. There was no drug residue. “Is there any … explanation for why today the baggies … that you say in the warrant had powdery substance in it, why you don’t see that today?” Scoggin asked.
“I don’t have an explanation for that, sir,” Partyka said.
On Sept. 16, Scoggin ruled the raid on Moore’s home lacked probable cause and the evidence was inadmissible. Scoggin said Partyka misled the court about his role in the traffic stop and by claiming he had a confidential reliable informant, whom the judge called just a “tipster.”
Quoting a rap lyric in a report was “less than professional,” the judge said. And regarding the officer’s claims about gun seizures, “the Court cannot help but comment that the claims seem odd and a bit fantastic.”
Scoggin cited Partyka’s inability to explain why the bags were now empty. “This is a material misrepresentation and, at a minimum, a reckless disregard for truth,” he said.
With no evidence, prosecutors dropped the charges. Moore was released from jail on Sept. 17. He’d spent seven months behind bars.
In an interview, Moore said he thinks Partyka held a grudge after he complained at the precinct about the traffic stop beating. “I do believe we need cops,” Moore said, “but some of them cops are just bad.”
Partyka was given no discipline by Minneapolis police.
Asked for comment, Minneapolis spokesman Casper Hill would address only the traffic stop. He said the city dropped the charges because Moore’s blood-alcohol tests had not been processed at the time, and they are now reviewing the case to “determine whether it should be recharged.”
Laszewski, of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, said outcomes like Moore’s are rare, and only 12% of charges ended in acquittals or dismissals over the past four years.
Granse said the case is a cautionary tale about abuse of power. If police are allowed to break the rules as long as they solve a crime, anyone could be subjected to an unconstitutional search, she said.
“It would have been really easy for Partyka to have done his job. We have procedures,” Granse said. “And he ignored them.”
— Staff reporter Liz Sawyer contributed to this report.
This story is part of a collaboration with the Star Tribune through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.