A year after a global pandemic thwarted their efforts to reform police practices across Minnesota, Denise and John Klaus were back in front of state legislators Friday fighting to pass a law that would govern the highly secretive use of police informants.
They testified virtually before a House committee about "Matthew's Law," proposed legislation named after their 32-year-old son who died of a drug overdose in 2019 while working as a confidential informant for Rochester police.
It would be the first of its kind in Minnesota and one of few across the country if passed. The Oronoco couple first testified about the bill around this time last year before COVID-19 put an end to it. Renewing their efforts as the second anniversary of Matthew Klaus' death on March 30 approached wasn't easy.
"I would've liked to say it was easier this go around … but when we had to go through rewriting [the bill] and doing this again, it brought a lot of things back up to the surface again — all of our emotions," Denise Klaus said after Friday's hearing.
Matthew Klaus, the third of four siblings, left behind a 14-year-old son.
Denise and John Klaus raised several concerns about their son's case: He was a recovering heroin and alcohol addict who had relapsed when he was hired by Rochester police; he was instructed to buy heroin from a drug dealer who eventually sold him his fatal dose, and police violated their own policy by not asking the county corrections office for approval to hire him while he was on probation in two cases.
Before Matthew Klaus' death, his father had called probation twice to warn that he had relapsed. He had also called Rochester police asking for a welfare check on his son.
"Sadly, if the [probation officer] had been informed by [Rochester police] about using Matt to buy drugs, he may have remembered my calls and worked [out] a plan for Matt," John Klaus told the committee. "Allowing him to buy heroin … seems almost irresponsible now," John Klaus said.
Rochester police did not return a message seeking comment. Denise and John Klaus first learned that their son was an informant after his death when a family friend alerted them to a news story that briefly referenced it while focusing on the drug dealer's arrest.
"We were not even given the consideration of a phone call from the Police Department to give us advanced warning," Denise Klaus told the committee. "If there had been a policy in effect that was written to protect the informant, Matthew might still be here today, and his family and many friends would not be grieving him still."
Matthew Klaus' third and last police-sanctioned buy from the dealer, Michelle A. Williams, occurred nine days before his father found him dead in his Rochester home. Williams was arrested after Klaus died and later pleaded guilty to third-degree murder; she was sentenced to a little under nine years in prison.
"Matthew's Law" calls for the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), which licenses officers, to consult with law enforcement and treatment and mental health experts to craft a model policy about the use of informants. It would require all police agencies to adopt an identical or similar policy and certify it annually with the board.
The bill outlined several guidelines for police: maintain an emergency contact for informants; consult with an informant's probation officer; stop people receiving treatment for addiction from making controlled buys or sales, and refer informants with addiction issues to treatment services, among others. The use of informants is mostly unregulated on a state and federal level; state laws exist in California, Florida and North Dakota.
John Klaus told the committee that Rochester police's two-page informant policy had "little" that addressed safety. A form that informants sign "provides no benefits to the [informant] and seems to exist purely to absolve [police] from any liability," he added.
Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, a retired deputy sheriff, was the only member to address the bill's merits. He said a law wasn't needed and that police should be educated and allowed to craft their own policy.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708