TALLAHASSEE — Nearly seven years after a young Pinellas County woman was killed while acting as a police informant, lawmakers will decide whether to strengthen the state law named after her.
Among possible changes is one sure to generate debate: Subjecting law enforcement officers to a felony charge if they don’t follow “Rachel’s Law.”
The law, in honor of Countryside High School graduate Rachel Hoffman, was passed in 2009 to protect those known as confidential informants, or C.I.s for short.
It introduced guidelines for police use of informants that, had they been in effect at the time, could have kept Hoffman from working as an informant, preventing her death.
Irv Hoffman, Rachel Hoffman’s father and a mental health counselor in Palm Harbor, said he wants to help people with drug problems who get caught in the criminal justice system.
“These are people that shouldn’t be bullied into doing police work,” he said. “Why would you send someone with a drug addiction to do a drug buy? It’s a disease of the brain; they need help.”
Rachel Hoffman’s slaying received national news coverage and called attention to police’s largely unregulated use of informants.
The 23-year-old was shot and killed during a 2008 sting while she was acting as an informant for Tallahassee police. Hoffman had recently graduated from Florida State University.
She had been charged with possession of marijuana and pills she didn’t have a prescription for. It was her second drug arrest in two years and she later told friends police had threatened that she’d be put away for 10 years.
Hoffman, described as sweet but naïve by those who knew her, agreed to work for investigators to help arrest others. That was in return for a promise of leniency in her own case.
Hoffman was sent to buy drugs and a gun from two men, Deneilo Bradshaw and Andrea Green, in May 2008. But the men changed the location of meeting and officers lost Hoffman.
Her body was later found in a ditch off the side of a rural road 50 miles away; she had been shot five times.
Lance Block, the Tallahassee attorney representing Irv Hoffman and Margie Weiss, Rachel’s mother, said that when he first met with them, they wanted three things.
First, the men who killed their daughter should spend the rest of their lives in prison, and second, the city of Tallahassee must be held accountable, they said, according to Block.
Bradshaw and Green were convicted and sentenced to life. And in 2012, the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott approved a claim bill of $2.4 million to compensate Hoffman and Weiss for Rachel’s death.
But “they also wanted a law passed to protect civilians like their daughter who engage in the most dangerous kind of police work – undercover vice,” Block said.
The problem was that the current Rachel’s Law, signed by former Gov. Charlie Crist, “was watered down” after objections from police and prosecutor groups, he added.
Among other provisions, it requires law enforcement to tell prospective confidential informants that they can’t guarantee them any breaks in court for participating.
Also, people have to get a chance to talk with a lawyer before agreeing to become an informant and police must assess “the person’s age and maturity” before sending them out on the streets.
Now, identical bills (HB 267/SB 372) to change the law have been filed by state Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, and state Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness.
Pilon is a former sheriff’s deputy; Dean was Citrus County sheriff 1981-1996.
The new measure adds several requirements for law enforcement, including providing “reasonable protective measures” to confidential informants at risk of threat or harm.
Informants “known to be substance abusers or to be at risk for substance abuse” would have to be referred to drug prevention or treatment services.
The bill also would prohibit anyone already in drug treatment from working as an informant in “buy-bust operations,” such as the one Hoffman was on.
The provision likely to generate the most opposition creates a penalty of a third-degree felony – punishable up to five years – for any officer who “willfully” fails to follow Rachel’s Law.
Ryan Pender was the lead Tallahassee Police investigator in the sting during which Hoffman was killed. He was eventually fired but appealed his termination. An arbitrator ordered the city to return him to duty in 2010.
“There have to be checks and balances to ensure that police are doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Irv Hoffman said.
A Florida Sheriffs Association spokeswoman said the group is “still looking at this bill” and hasn’t yet taken a position. A Florida Police Chiefs Association spokeswoman was unavailable to comment.
Irv Hoffman says he and Weiss plan to come to the Capitol. Legislators already are meeting in committees in advance of the 60-day session, which runs March 3 to May 1.
“I’m not sure we’ll be able to convince lawmakers but we’ll give it our best try,” he said.
How to sound off
HB 267/SB 372 would augment the state’s “Rachel’s Law,” adding new protections for people serving as police informants in Florida.
To find and contact your own senator or representative, visit www.leg.state.fl.us. You’ll also find helpful tips at the Information Center there.