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Coerced Snitching: Fall-Out Continues in the Case of Murdered Informant Rachel Hoffman

The death of Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old social pot dealer in Tallahassee, Florida, who was killed by criminals police sent her to buy hard drugs and guns from after they arrested her and intimidated her into becoming a confidential informant, may not have been entirely in vain. This week, more than six months after her May murder, Hoffman's parents have filed a lawsuit over her death. Her family is now also working with lawmakers to craft legislation that would regulate the use of confidential informants.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/rachelhoffman.jpg
Rachel Hoffman
Law enforcement use of snitches in drug cases is routine, mainly because since the parties involved in drug deals are not complaining to the police, they have no other easy way to develop cases. But American law enforcement has also developed a system that relies on "flipping" people arrested on drug charges -- getting them to agree to become informers in the hopes of seeing their own charges reduced. Such offers are usually accompanied by graphic predictions of how the arrestee would be mistreated in prison.

Despite being something of a drug reform activist herself, Hoffman fell into that trap after being charged with possession of more than 20 grams of marijuana and possession of Ecstasy with the intent to distribute. She agreed to act as a snitch for Tallahassee police and went off to do a controlled buy of guns and cocaine. Her police handlers lost contact with her as she met two men. Her body was found two days later.

While Tallahassee police initially defended their operation and blamed Hoffman for not following instructions, since then, one investigator has been fired and four others got two week unpaid vacations for their role in sending her to her death.

Now, Hoffman's parents want more. In the lawsuit filed Tuesday in state court in Tallahassee, they accuse the Tallahassee police of negligence and are seeking unspecified monetary damages. Their attorney, Lance Brock, told the Tallahassee News the city would pay big time.

"It is a multi-million dollar case," he said. "Three words come to mind: Keystone Cop tragedy," said family attorney Lance Block. "It is mind-boggling that there were so many acts of incompetence by the TPD, combined with a cavalier lack of appreciation for the high risk of danger that its officers were exposing Rachel Hoffman to."

The city has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit. Efforts to reach a settlement have been underway, but Hoffman's parents did not want to wait any longer.

Hoffman's parents are also working with legislators to tighten the standards for using young people as snitches. The family is seeking passage of legislation to provide greater protections for police informants. A bill is expected to be filed in the coming weeks. State Sen. Mike Fasano (R-New Port Ritchie) said he is working with a Hoffman attorney on drafting a bill to be introduced shortly. The bill could include banning police from using some people as informants or requiring them to take extra measures to protect informants and ensure that they understand the risks involved.

"It was a very sad, very sad situation," Fasano said. "We've got to do our best in working with law enforcement to protect young people like that... who don't realize what they're getting themselves into," he said. "We're not talking about a hardened criminal... We're talking about a young lady who may have had personal problems, but that doesn't mean we put her out there in a dangerous situation."

"Rachel Hoffman's parents have suffered the worst kind of loss a human being can endure: the loss of their only child," Block said. "The passage of Rachel's law and just compensation that sufficiently places the TPD and other law enforcement agencies on notice that what happened to Rachel is totally unacceptable are the only means our system offers the family to make sure that her death will not be in vain."

Police Use Newspaper Ads to Recruit Snitches

Apparently, there aren’t enough unsolved crimes to keep Albuquerque police busy:

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - The Albuquerque Police Department has turned to the want ads for snitches.

An ad this week in the alternative newspaper The Alibi asks "people who hang out with crooks" to do part-time work for the police.

It reads in part: "Make some extra cash! Drug use and criminal record OK." [MSNBC]

Does this sound at all like something that’s going to make Albuquerque a better place? It’s absurd on its face, a completely sick feeding frenzy mentality that goes a long way towards explaining how we’ve become the world’s leading jailer. The very fact that police are actively seeking sketchy people to rat out other sketchy people shows you exactly how useless and cyclical much of our criminal law-enforcement activity has become.

Worse yet, this is exactly how you incentivize bad people to create bad situations. This is how innocent people’s addresses end up on drug warrants, only to have their doors smashed in, their dogs shot, and their peaceful lives forever tarnished by the long, infinitely clumsy arm of the law. This is how police become detached from morality, collaborating with criminals to create crime.

If there is such a thing as "sending the wrong message" in the war on drugs, it isn’t marijuana reform, it’s police offering people money to take drugs and commit crimes.

Rachel Hoffman Fallout: One Officer Fired, Others Reprimanded

At long last, we’re seeing some accountability for the officers who got Rachel Hoffman killed after coercing her into working as an informant in the mindbending botched drug sting disaster of the century:

Police Chief Dennis Jones requested that investigator Ryan Pender's employment be terminated.

Jones also wanted this disciplinary action taken: Deputy Chief John Proctor, reprimand; Capt. Chris Connell, two-week suspension without pay; Lt. Taltha White, two week suspension without pay; Sgt. David Odom, two week suspension without pay; Sgt. Rod Looney, two week suspension without pay.

Jones is reassigning White, Odom and Connell within the department.

"We have taken the necessary time to conduct a thorough and honest review and asked others to examine our operations," Jones says in the statement from the city. He said he has contacted Hoffman's family and provided a report.

"While we cannot change the events of May 7, we can make the type of changes within the department to help ensure our future actions are consistent with policy," Jones said.

[City Manager] Thompson also issued a reprimand to Jones to require a stronger level of supervision from top to bottom in the department. [Tampa Bay Online]

Anything resembling police accountability in the war on drugs is so rare that we should really take a moment to just reflect on this. Miraculously, we’ve reached a point where all you have to do to get the cops in trouble is be a pretty white girl with a loving family and hundreds of friends, get sucked into a steaming cauldron of first-rate drug enforcement incompetence, and perish dramatically on 20/20’s tear-jerker TV special of the season.

That’s what it takes, because despite the all-encompassing aversion of police officials towards acknowledging even mild misconduct, it’s still easier than conceding that the entire drug informant system is fundamentally corrupt and perverted to its core. This isn’t about Officer Pender, it isn’t about Tallahassee, and it isn’t going to get any better just because a couple incompetent cops got called out. The Burn Em’ & Bail Drug Informant Circus of Horror is a national tour sponsored by the war on drugs and it won’t go away until every last one of us makes it abundantly clear that we want no part of this. Not with our money, not in our community, and not in our name.

Florida Prosecutor Stands Up For Rachel Hoffman, Refuses to Work With DEA

The fallout following Rachel Hoffman's murder is becoming intense. DEA has refused to allow three agents to testify before a grand jury regarding their involvement in the case, resulting in a surprising backlash from the State Attorney's office:

State Attorney Willie Meggs has told the Tallahassee Democrat that his decision to no longer prosecute cases involving the federal Drug Enforcement Administration is, "probably more symbolic than it is substantive, but I am very serious about it."

He went on to say, "I'm just not going to play that little game with those folks. I don’t need them and if these agencies want to work with them and do their cases with them, that's fine." [Tallahassee Democrat]

Strong words indeed. This sort of vitriol is rarely exchanged between drug warriors and it seems to indicate a drawing of battlelines as we wait to see who'll be held to account for this now-legendary drug war f#%k-up.

Mark R. Trouville, DEA's Special Agent in Charge of the Miami Field Division, predictably blamed his officers' non-compliance on a technicality:

We feel it is important for the public to know that DEA did not refuse to testify before the grand jury in this case. Although notified both verbally and in writing by DEA, the State Attorney’s Office refused to comply with Department of Justice regulations (which have been respected by the Florida Supreme Court) and therefore DEA Agents did not receive authorization to testify before the grand jury. In order to comply, the State Attorney’s Office simply needed to issue a subpoena and provide the local United States Attorney’s Office a summary of the information sought and its relevance to the proceeding.

This is the same guy who once claimed that today's marijuana "will kill you," so he has all the credibility of a drunk frat-boy on April Fool's Day. Thus I lean towards the assumption that DEA is covering its ass, which would explain why State Attorney Meggs is raging pissed.

To be honest though, I'm really not quite sure what the hell is going on here. I don't understand DEA's role in the murder because they won't testify, but in hindsight the fact that Rachel was told to purchase 1,500 pills of ecstasy, 2 ounces of crack cocaine and a gun sure gives the impression that DEA may have been calling the shots. The conspicuously large order Rachel placed had a great deal to do with her cover being blown, so to whatever extent DEA may have been responsible for that, they would be equally responsible for the fatal outcome.

Ultimately, many people made many errors contributing to this horrible event, but we all know that it takes more than a few greedy cops to manufacture a tragedy as compelling and gut-wrenching as this. After the finger-pointing subsides, after a few sacrificial reassignments, re-trainings and procedural revisions, the war that killed Rachel Hoffman will rage on without missing a beat. The culture of threats and manipulation that characterizes modern drug enforcement will remain intact and the mentality that led to Rachel's death will continue to guide police as they take on the drug problem with handcuffs in one hand and a gun in the other.

Everyone Should Know the Story of Rachel Hoffman

This 20/20 report on the death of Rachel Hoffman illustrates perfectly the greed and incompetence that too often characterizes modern drug war policing. Even if you already know the story, I can't recommend highly enough that you watch this and share it with everyone you know.

From the moment Tallahassee police laid their hands on her, to the day she died, to the disgraceful press conference in which they blamed her for her own death, there was not one moment throughout this shameful episode that can be excused. I can think of at least a half dozen laws that should be changed immediately in the aftermath of this and a few police officers that should be thrown out of the department and mauled in civil court.

But the one thing you won’t hear on 20/20 is that policing this bad doesn’t happen by accident. It wasn't bad training or a series of tragic coincidences that produced this outcome. It is the war on drugs, corrupt to its core, that incentivizes police to behave with a reckless disregard for the safety and well-being of the people they serve. Every action they took made sense to them. That's the problem.

Help Needed: Drug War Chronicle Seeking Cases of Informant Abuse

Many of our readers know about the tragic case of Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old in Tallahassee, Florida, who was killed by drug dealers after police coerced her into acting as an informant without having access to an attorney. Drug War Chronicle is currently looking for cases, reported or unreported, in which police appear to have committed misconduct or made serious misjudgments in their treatment of informants.

If you can help us find such cases, please email David Borden at [email protected]. We will keep your name and personal information confidential unless you tell us otherwise. If you are uncomfortable sending this information by email, feel free to contact us by phone instead; our office number is (202) 293-8340, and you can speak or leave a message with David Borden or David Guard. Thank you in advance for your help.

Further information on the informant issue, including the Rachel Hoffman case, can be found in our category archive here.

Help Needed: Drug War Chronicle Seeking Cases of Informant Abuse

Many of our readers know about the tragic case of Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old in Tallahassee, Florida, who was killed by drug dealers after police coerced her into acting as an informant without having access to an attorney. Drug War Chronicle is currently looking for cases, reported or unreported, in which police appear to have committed misconduct or made serious misjudgments in their treatment of informants.

If you can help us find such cases, please email David Borden at [email protected]. We will keep your name and personal information confidential unless you tell us otherwise. If you are uncomfortable sending this information by email, feel free to contact us by phone instead; our office number is (202) 293-8340, and you can speak or leave a message with David Borden or David Guard. Thank you in advance for your help.

Further information on the informant issue, including the Rachel Hoffman case, can be found in our category archive here.

Help Needed: Drug War Chronicle Seeking Cases of Informant Abuse

Many of our readers know about the tragic case of Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old in Tallahassee, Florida, who was killed by drug dealers after police coerced her into acting as an informant without having access to an attorney. Drug War Chronicle is currently looking for cases, reported or unreported, in which police appear to have committed misconduct or made serious misjudgments in their treatment of informants.

If you can help us find such cases, please email David Borden at [email protected]. We will keep your name and personal information confidential unless you tell us otherwise. If you are uncomfortable sending this information by email, feel free to contact us by phone instead; our office number is (202) 293-8340, and you can speak or leave a message with David Borden or David Guard. Thank you in advance for your help.

Further information on the informant issue, including the Rachel Hoffman case, can be found in our category archive here.

Help Needed: Drug War Chronicle Seeking Cases of Informant Abuse

Many of our readers know about the tragic case of Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old in Tallahassee, Florida, who was killed by drug dealers after police coerced her into acting as an informant without having access to an attorney. Drug War Chronicle is currently looking for cases, reported or unreported, in which police appear to have committed misconduct or made serious misjudgments in their treatment of informants.

If you can help us find such cases, please email David Borden at [email protected]. We will keep your name and personal information confidential unless you tell us otherwise. If you are uncomfortable sending this information by email, feel free to contact us by phone instead; our office number is (202) 293-8340, and you can speak or leave a message with David Borden or David Guard. Thank you in advance for your help.

Further information on the informant issue, including the Rachel Hoffman case, can be found in our category archive here.

Rachel Hoffman's Family Issues an Urgent Call for Change

The mother of slain drug war victim Rachel Hoffman has started the Rachel Morningstar Foundation to advocate legislation requiring legal counsel for prospective drug informants as well as decriminalization of marijuana in Florida. You can make a donation here.

For anyone still catching up on Hoffman's story, this heartbreaking video is a good starting point:


Rachel was involved in NORML and SSDP. She was one of us, and while I wish she'd thought better than to become an informant, we still don't know what threats police used to coerce her into assisting in the operation that took her life.

Rachel is someone we might have met at a conference someday. Someone who might have posted a comment on a drug policy blog or responded to an action alert. For whatever reason, that simple thought bothers me in an uncomfortable way that the drug war atrocities I cover daily often do not. It's a feeling I've had to shake off as I type, reminding myself that I've seen too much of this already to be rattled by the inevitable.

Every drug war victim has a story, each of them upsetting and important in its own way. We know all too well the common thread that binds these tragedies together and we'll stand without hesitation behind the Hoffmans as they've so bravely stepped forward so that their loss can become something positive, something Rachel would be proud of.

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