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Proposed Rachel's Law has good intentions, but is it practical?

No one wants what happened to an inexperienced undercover informant named Rachel Hoffman to ever happen again.

Not police, who say using such informants is critical to making drug cases. Not prosecutors. And obviously not well-meaning legislators pushing for a "Rachel's Law" to set state standards for informants in criminal investigations.

But does this best-of-intentions bill in her name go too far?

Hoffman, a 23-year-old Florida State graduate, was murdered last year while working with Tallahassee police. She was in a supervised drug court program when officers found marijuana and pills in her apartment, and agreed to go undercover for consideration in her own case.

But Hoffman was inexperienced, untrained and unprepared for the dangerous path they set her on. A grand jury later called her immature and "way over her head." She was supposed to buy ecstasy, cocaine and a gun from two convicted felons. She went alone, carrying $13,000.

The sting could not have gone more wrong. Police lost contact. They didn't find her body for two days.

Now we have the pending Rachel's Law sponsored by Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey and fellow Republican Rep. Peter Nehr of Tarpon Springs. No question, the bill contains sensible requirements for using informants: among them, police training, mandatory consideration of an informant's age, stability and experience, a specific written agreement and a chance to consult a lawyer first.

But the law would also require the local state attorney (and in some cases, judge) to approve all deals ahead of time, a potentially bad blurring of the lines between the distinct roles of police and prosecutors. (Contrary to your average Law & Order episode, the two have separate jobs and routinely disagree on, for example, the proper charges someone should face.)

Veteran police I talked with said in drug cases, things can move fast — catch a guy with drugs, flip him and get the dealer before everyone disappears.

"Some of (the bill) makes all the sense in the world," says Tampa police Chief Steve Hogue. "But some of it is a little problematic in that the bill wasn't written with real police work, particularly narcotics work, in mind."

Prosecutors have their own reservations. Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe says the law as is could reduce the number of confidential informants substantially.

"You're going to seriously curtail enforcement of our drug laws with this legislation," says Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober. "This is not a viable solution to this terrible event."

Coming from the ones in the trenches, that makes sense.

The good news: Sen. Fasano says he's all for working with them as the bill moves forward. "I hope they respect the purpose of why we're doing this legislation, so we save the life of another young person," he says. And maybe that's the best point of all.

How we use informants — "use" being the key word here — deserves a hard look after what happened to Rachel Hoffman. She and the parents who survive her deserve that. And the final version of any law in her name should be considered, workable, practical and most of all, effective.

Proposed Rachel's Law has good intentions, but is it practical? 01/27/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 3:30pm]
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