"Rachel's Law" Protects Police Informants
Young people arrested for drug offenses are often coerced by cops into becoming informants. The father of an 18-year-old murdered by dealers tells The Fix of his campaign for change.
Earlier this fall, the New Yorker profiled Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old from Tallahassee, Florida who was arrested for minor drug possession and then coerced by cops into becoming a confidential informant in a sting operation. She was killed by dealers in May 2008. Since then, her parents have been fighting to alert the public to law enforcement's widespread use of confidential informants (CIs) in order to rack up drug arrests. By some counts, up to 80% of all drug-related arrests in the US involve CIs that were recruited after committing non-violent, usually drug-related offenses. Typically, Rachel Hoffman had been arrested for possession of pot and ecstasy pills. Less typically, she was white: young people of color from lower-income communities are more often pressured into becoming informants.
Rachel’s parents, Irv Hoffman and Margie Weiss, and their lawyer Lance Block successfully lobbied to pass “Rachel’s Law” in Florida—the first bill in the US that deals comprehensively with confidential informants. It requires officers to undergo special training on informants, and to take into account a new recruit’s age and emotional state, as well the level of risk involved in a given operation. But following pressure from law enforcement agencies in Florida, crucial parts of the bill were removed. So Weiss and Hoffman are now working to strengthen Rachel's Law—including a proposed amendment to prevent under-18s from being used as CIs. “I’ve heard about so many kids caught with an ounce of pot, or pot and some pills, and then asked to do dangerous undercover operations," Hoffman tells The Fix. "We do not mind people assisting law enforcement, but we do not want kids out there in dangerous drug deals…They have no idea what their rights are. Police coerce them—they say things like, ‘If you don’t do this for us you’re going to jail, and we’re going to tell your parents.’”
Weiss and Hoffman also hope to add a stipulation that substance abusers in treatment be exempt from undercover drug deals. “Some [people] who are struggling with addiction may have cognitive impairments, not understand what their rights are, not know they are entitled to a lawyer, or not have economic and social resources to protect themselves," Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a leading expert on informants, tells The Fix. Natapoff adds that when a person in recovery is pressured into becoming an informant, they’re risking their sobriety by "being sent back into the drug milieu right when they’re trying to heal themselves.” Natapoff believes that the criminal justice system must shift towards prioritizing recovery over the gathering of information, if the ultimate goal is to reduce drug use.
But Hoffman argues that the War on Drugs isn't actually about stopping drug use, but rather about making money: "It’s an unfair, unjust system. That’s how [law enforcement officials] pay for their vans, for their prosecutors—they get money from the War on Drugs. They put zero dent in the supply. They just focus on small-town, small-time arrests.” Still, he isn't without hope, believing that people are “waking up in this country a little bit,” especially after the New Yorker brought the issue some much-needed national attention. Eventually Hoffman hopes more states and the federal government will adapt laws on CIs, to save the “thousands and thousands of Rachels out there" from the dangers that ended his daughter's life.