Friday, February 23, 2018

$2.4M payout in limbo in police informant's death

TALLAHASSEE — The parents of a murdered police informant would be compensated by the city of Tallahassee under a bill filed Friday by a House committee, but a Senate special master has recommended against authorizing the $2.4 million payment.

The Senate Rules Committee will consider that chamber's bill (SB 44) on Monday.

Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old recent Florida State University graduate and native of Safety Harbor, was shot five times in 2008 when a Tallahassee drug sting went bad. Tallahassee police used the Safety Harbor woman as an undercover informant after catching her with marijuana and pills without having a prescription.

Hoffman's parents, Irving Hoffman and Marjorie Weiss, sued Tallahassee, which agreed to a $2.6 million settlement as the case was about to go to trial last month. The city, though, could pay only $200,000 under Florida law without passage of a claims bill by the Legislature.

"The city has set aside the money," Lance Block, a lawyer for the parents, told the House Judiciary Committee. "They're ready to pay this claim. This has been a very painful ordeal for this community as well as, of course, the Hoffman family."

Police gave Hoffman $13,000 in marked bills to buy cocaine, a drug known as Ecstasy and a gun from two men. Officers lost visual and electronic contact with Hoffman when the suspects called her on her cell phone and changed their location from a park to an isolated area north of Tallahassee. That's where she was robbed and shot. Her body was dumped about 50 miles away near Perry, southeast of Tallahassee.

Senate Special Master John G. Van Landingham concluded Hoffman had only herself to blame because she could have "stopped and sped away" at various times before meeting the suspects although he acknowledged police could have foreseen what eventually happened.

"But just because the planned operation posed foreseeable risks does not mean that the police should reasonably have foreseen every conceivable risk, no matter how remote or unlikely," Van Landingham wrote.

He added police could not have "reasonably anticipated that Ms. Hoffman would purposefully slip off the carefully set stage and freelance an improvisational, extraordinarily dangerous operation at a remote location with no one watching."

Block called Van Landingham's findings "pure speculation and conjecture." He said they are contrary to every other investigation of the killing. That includes a report by House Special Master Tom Thomas, who recommended approval of the claim. He noted a grand jury report concluded police made "an unconscionable decision that cost Ms. Hoffman her life."

Block also told the committee an internal investigation concluded police committed 14 acts of negligence and 70 policy violations. He said one officer was fired but reinstated after an appeal while several others were suspended or reprimanded.

"She should have never been out there to begin with," Block said. "She had never been trained or had any experience. She was asked to purchase drugs that she had never been involved in and a gun. Police encouraged her to have a gun involved because that would increase the charges against the two targets."

Both men, Deneilo Bradshaw, and his stepbrother-in-law, Andrea Green, are serving life sentences for Hoffman's murder.

A measure called "Rachel's Law" now sets standards for using undercover informants.

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