Tampabay.com: Why was informer put at risk?
In print: Thursday, May 15, 2008
Why was informer put at risk?
Tallahassee officials did the right thing by asking Attorney General Bill McCollum to review how 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman became a police informant and wound up a murder victim. There are troubling questions about how Tallahassee police recruited the Countryside High and Florida State University graduate for a sting and how they failed to protect her when it went horribly wrong.
When police served a search warrant on Hoffman’s apartment in April and found marijuana and ecstasy, she agreed to become an informant in exchange for avoiding charges and a trip to jail. Police never told prosecutors about the search or her recruitment, even though Hoffman already was in a pretrial diversion program to resolve earlier charges of marijuana possession and resisting arrest. That was a mistake, and the department’s argument that notification wasn’t necessary because Hoffman was in diversion rather than on probation does not hold water. Leaving prosecutors out of the loop leaves too much room for abuse by police.
If the idea behind keeping Hoffman out of jail and not informing prosecutors was to maintain secrecy, police failed to impress upon her the importance of keeping quiet. She sent a text message about the undercover operation to her boyfriend, and her friends told the Tallahassee Democrat she was afraid. McCollum should look closely at how police prepared Hoffman for the operation.
It is common for police to use low-level drug users to go after bigger dealers. But this was a young woman with a history of marijuana possession who was supposed to buy 1,500 ecstasy pills, 2 ounces of cocaine and a gun. That sudden escalation could have raised suspicions and triggered a change in location for Hoffman’s meeting with two men arrested in Orlando on charges of robbery and kidnapping. Why police did not prevent her from abandoning the agreed upon location for the meeting and why they lost track of her until her body was found two days later in Taylor County are among the questions left to be answered.
Rachel Hoffman agreed to help Tallahassee police and become an informant in order to avoid drug charges. The police arranged the terms without notifying prosecutors or her lawyer, then failed to help her when she needed it most. They let her down, and McCollum needs to determine why it happened and recommend reforms.