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Law offers a measure of justice for the next Rachel

When it comes to the police and the rules governing how they get the job done, we are in interesting times.

Some law enforcement types groused about a recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion limiting their ability to search someone's car after an arrest. Then some civilians got to gripe about the nibbling away of personal freedoms when state lawmakers said cops can pull us over for not buckling our seat belts.

And, finally, we got to see a bill aimed at protecting confidential police informants and the tricky business of how cops use them — and with that, some justice in the case of Rachel Hoffman.

Laws are sometimes named to right a tragic wrong, and Rachel's Law is no exception. A graduate of Countryside High and Florida State University, she was murdered a year ago this month in a Tallahassee drug sting that could not have gone more wrong.

What became obvious in the aftermath was that Hoffman, who was 23 and acting as a police informant in order to temper the trouble she was in herself, never should have been there in the first place.

She agreed to make "controlled buys" from drug dealers after police found marijuana and pills in a search of her apartment. But she was woefully ill equipped for the job, inexperienced, immature and "way over her head," as a grand jury would later put it.

Police armed her with $13,000 to buy drugs and a gun but lost her as the deal was supposed to go down. She was shot to death, her body found days later. Two men are charged in her murder.

As the case made headlines, some observers rather callously argued that Hoffman got herself into trouble in the first place. But as her grieving father rightly said, the punishment should never have been her life.

So this session, lawmakers and her parents pushed for Rachel's Law to change what went wrong and set some uniform policies and procedures for the use of future informants.

Among them: Agencies would have to consider specific factors like the person's age, maturity and suitability to do the job.

Law enforcement types did not much like the overall bill in its original form, saying it was too broad and could essentially strip them of a tool important to making cases — particularly drug busts that can require insider knowledge.

Using informants often isn't pretty, they will tell you, but it can be crucial.

And so came compromise, which was not all her family hoped for.

The law lost tough requirements that said no one in drug treatment could be used as an informant, or that an informant must be given a chance to consult a lawyer.

Were both sides okay with what passed this week?

"I think it's important that agencies that are going to use informants have written policies, procedures and guidelines for the utilization of them," says Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats.

"It's a great start," says Sen. Mike Fasano, the New Port Richey Republican who sponsored the bill. "If we can save one Rachel Hoffman … I think we're successful."

And so Rachel's Law passed, a start at a spelling-out of what police should and shouldn't do in the delicate business of using nonpolice as informants, and with it, some measure of justice for all that went wrong for Rachel Hoffman.

Law offers a measure of justice for the next Rachel 05/01/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 4, 2009 12:07pm]
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