Rachel’s Law & What it Means for Confidential Informants

October 9, 2021 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements

Rachel’s Background  

Rachel Hoffman was a 23-year-old Florida State University graduate living in Tallahassee, Florida, with hopes of attending cooking school in Arizona. Police arrived at her apartment after her neighbors reported smelling marijuana and voiced their suspicion that drugs were being sold from the home. Police seized more than five ounces of marijuana as well as valium and ecstasy pills, leaving Hoffman facing felony charges including possession of cannabis with the intent to sell and maintaining a drug house. However, Ryan Pender, the head law enforcement officer, offered her a deal. He said that she could help herself by providing “substantial assistance” to the city’s narcotics team, leaving her with the impression that doing so could lead to her charges being reduced or dropped entirely.

The Unfortunate Story

On May 7, 2008, Rachel went to the Tallahassee Police Department (TPD) where she met Ryan who explained who she would be meeting and what she would be doing as an informant. He had her wired and gave her approximately $13,000 in cash to keep in her purse for the interaction.  The plan was she was to meet two men in the parking lot of Forestmeadows Park to buy a firearm, two and a half ounces of cocaine, and fifteen hundred Ecstasy pills. According to the Tallahassee Democrat, this was the “biggest buy-bust in department memory” and as a result, many law enforcement officers were assigned to the case, including Ryan, the supervisory officer in charge, who was to watch the sale unfold. A Drug Enforcement Administration surveillance plane was also going to be overhead for added safety. Rachel spoke to one of the suspects she was on her way to meet over the phone, and he ended up changing the meeting location. As a result of technical issues with her audio surveillance, she did not hear Ryan state to not follow the men. The police lost sight of her and her vehicle, and she was shot and killed by the men. Later that night, police arrived at her boyfriend’s home looking for Rachel, but he was unaware of what happened or where she was. Approximately two days later, Rachel’s body was found in a ravine fifty miles from Tallahassee in Perry, Florida. She suffered from five gunshot wounds to the chest from the firearm she was instructed to buy. One of the suspects later revealed that he intended to hand Rachel a bag of aspirin and run off with the money, but when they found the wire in her purse, they shot her.

The Role of Informants

Informants, ranging from juveniles to adults, have long been “the foot soldiers in the government’s war on drugs,” however, at the time of Rachel’s death, there were very few procedures that governed how law enforcement could use informants in their drug cases. This often resulted in informants being given no paperwork or legal protection, finding themselves in dangerous situations in the hopes that performing these high-risk police operations would lead to reduced criminal sanctions. As a result, law enforcement agencies throughout the nation had continually used informants in their narcotics operations “without regard for their safety, [ultimately] treat[ing] [them] as disposable pawns of the criminal-justice system.”

Rachel’s Law

In the wake of such a harrowing tragedy, Rachel’s parents did what many would do – fight for reform. Rachel’s Law, codified in Section 914.28 of the Florida Statutes, is the nation’s first law to help protect confidential informants and does the following:

  • Requires police informants to be informed that their work as an informant cannot guarantee a reduction in any pending criminal charges, immunity, a reduced sentence, or placement on probation.
  • Ensures confidential informants are granted the right to consult with an attorney upon request before agreeing to work as an undercover confidential informant However, it does not create a right to publicly funded legal counsel.
  • Requires that all personnel who are involved in the use or recruitment of confidential informants are trained in the law enforcement agency’s policies and procedures, and the agency must keep a record of such training.
  • Requires law enforcement agencies to develop policies for the recruitment, control, and use of confidential informants which must include restrictions on off-duty association and require supervisory approval before a juvenile can be recruited as a confidential informant.
  • Requires law enforcement to consider a person’s age, maturity, substance abuse history, risk of physical harm, emotional stability, criminal history, record, and whether their role is vital to the success of the investigation.
  • Limits access to confidential informant records within a law enforcement agency to those who need to review the records or have been required by the court to do so and enforces a record be kept of each person who views them.

The restrictions applied to law enforcement’s use of confidential informants through Rachel’s Law became a national model, even guiding states to implement additional protections for juvenile informants.

The Impact of Rachel’s Law in Tallahassee

Before Rachel’s Law, there were no uniform federal laws  regarding informants. Florida had few regulations, although the TPD and Leon County Sheriff’s office did employ certain practices pertaining to informants. Since the law went into effect, the TPD “has developed guidelines on how to better manage, utilize and document informants and ensure access to legal representation.” Background checks are now done on suspects and investigations take place to ensure law enforcement knows who is going to be at a target location before the informant arrives. Importantly, in 2018, TPD Spokesman Damon Miller stated that they now use informants within their scope of knowledge, meaning “if they’re familiar with purchasing marijuana, then we’re not going to have them go to and purchase kilos of cocaine. If they’re only dealing with weed, we’re not going to have them go out and buy guns.”

The impact that Rachel’s Law has had on confidential informants is unparalleled. Rachel’s parents continue to fight for additional protective measures to be added to the statute. As that fight continues, one thing is for sure–Rachel’s legacy will continue to make law enforcement ask just because confidential informants can help police bust drug dealers, at what cost will we let them?

This article was written by Sarah Kamide

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