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As Rachel Hoffman's parents plead, bill to protect police informants grows weaker

TALLAHASSEE — Irv Hoffman barely got his name out before he started crying. Still, he kept on, imploring lawmakers to protect police informants like his daughter.

"We need change," he told a Senate panel Wednesday. "We need checks and balances. And only then will there be hope for anyone trying to turn their life around."

Rachel Hoffman, 23, was killed after going on an undercover drug buy for Tallahassee police in the spring. In the highly charged aftermath came a bill to create "Rachel's Law."

But the proposal has met opposition from law enforcement groups who say it is overreaching and one-size-fits-all, if not unnecessary.

An intense lobbying effort has defeated several aspects of the proposal that Hoffman's parents say are critical toward sparing other lives, including barring anyone in a drug treatment program, like Rachel was, from going on undercover drug buys.

The struggle illustrates how emotional calls for reform can encounter a stark reality in the legislative process, where lawmakers try to balance competing interests.

"I never thought it was going to be this tough," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who sponsored the bill. "We had nothing in place before Rachel died. If we get this passed, at least we've gone a step further."

The bill passed in its stripped-down form, though several senators were sympathetic and noted the legislation has two more committee stops. The bank of lobbyists and law enforcement representatives in the room showed how difficult that will be.

"It strikes the heartstrings, but at the same time, you have to be able to step back from the emotion from a particular incident and try to decide from a policy perspective what's best," said Michael Ramage, general counsel for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Rachel Hoffman, who went to Countryside High School in Clearwater and Florida State University, agreed in April to become a police informant after officers found marijuana and ecstasy in her Tallahassee apartment.

She was found dead of gunshots on May 9 after police gave her $13,000 to buy 1,500 ecstasy pills, cocaine and a gun from suspected drug dealers. Two men have been arrested.

The legislation is sponsored by Fasano and Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs. The bill establishes minimum standards that law enforcement groups must meet when dealing with confidential informants.

It calls for command-level oversight in the use of informants and takes into account a person's age and maturity, emotional state and the level of risk a mission would entail. Police also would be barred from promising an informant more lenient treatment; only prosecutors and judges can do that.

Fasano and Nehr say that after learning the intricacies of the issues and how a blanket approach may not work, it was clear compromise was necessary.

"The last thing we want to do is interfere with the police agency's ability to catch bad guys," Nehr said.

But Rachel's father and mother, Maggie Weiss, are pressing for the inclusion of the prohibition of using people in drug treatment, as well as pairing nonviolent offenders with known violent people and requiring officers to advise someone he or she has the right to speak to an attorney before agreeing to participate.

"Informants can serve as valuable helpers to law enforcement, but they should have rights just like you and I do," Hoffman, a 59-year-old mental health counselor from Pinellas County, told the Senate panel. "They should never be treated as expendable people."

The bill now only grants an option to speak to an attorney upon request. Ramage contends that waiting to pair a person with an attorney could bring the use of many informants "to a screeching halt," because word of an arrest travels fast on the street and a person's cover could be compromised.

He said when people are in custody and being interrogated, they must be read their Miranda warning. Critics say that police often cut a deal without arresting a person, as was the case with Hoffman.

Ramage said the other restrictions do not provide the flexibility needed in cases that vary widely.

At the end of the meeting, Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, called Rachel's parents over to the corner of the room, offered consolation and some advice. "I told them, 'Don't compromise on your principles. Don't give in.' "

As Rachel Hoffman's parents plead, bill to protect police informants grows weaker 03/18/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 18, 2009 11:11pm]
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