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Saturday, September 3, 2016

Drug War Informants: Collateral Damage

     Americans love drugs and they hate informants. But as a result of the endless war on drugs, more and more citizens are snitching on each other. Many arrested users are being turned into informants, or "flipped" by narcotics officers. Instead of snitching to avoid long prison sentences, some of these reluctant drug informants end up dead. In the language of war, they are collateral damage.

     For good or bad, informants have always played a vital role in law enforcement. Most of them can be placed into one of three groups: paid "professionals;" jailhouse snitches; and flipped drug arrestees. The professionals snitch for money, the jailhouse types do it for lighter sentences, and many of the flipped drug informants cooperate with the police out of fear and desperation. People caught in possession of small quantities of marijuana tend to be the least street-wise, and ill equipped to protect themselves against the targeted professional drug merchants. A good number of flipped informants are addicts who feel they have no choice but to put themselves in harm's way.

The Rachel Hoffman Case

     In February 2007, a Tallahassee police officer pulled over 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman for a routine traffic violation. The Florida State University graduate consented to a search of her vehicle that resulted in the discovery of less than an ounce of marijuana. A few weeks later, narcotics officers found, in her apartment, 5 ounces of grass and 4 ecstasy pills. The prosecutor charged her with several narcotics counts that, according to her arresting officers, would send her to prison. However, if she agreed to act as a snitch/undercover operative in a bust-buy drug sting, the prosecutor would put in a good word with the judge. After some initial resistance, Hoffman agreed to buy 1,500 ecstasy pills, 2 ounces of cocaine, and a handgun from two drug dealers she had never met. The fact a gun was involved didn't seem to bother Hoffman's police handlers.

     At seven in the evening on May 7, 2008, when Hoffman arrived at the sting site, the two suspects told her the deal would go down at another location. Surveillance officers watched as she climbed into a stolen BMW with the two drug dealers. They drove off, and Hoffman's handlers, unprepared for a last minute change of plans, lost touch with their civilian undercover operative. The drug suspects had figured out that Hoffman was a snitch, and shot her to death in the car with the firearm she was supposed to buy.

     In response to public outrage over Rachel Hoffman's murder while working for the Tallahassee police, Chief Dennis Jones publicly called her a criminal responsible for the botched undercover drug operation that led to her death. His mindless statement created such a firestorm of public criticism, the chief was forced to apologize. (I'm sure that was sincere.) The chief suspended the narcotics officers with pay, and admitted that his bungling drug cops had put an untrained informant in danger.

     In 2010, the two men who killed Rachel Hoffman were convicted of murder and sentenced to life. Also that year, the Florida legislature passed "Rachel's Law," a statute that requires law enforcement agencies in the state to take the following steps with regard to drug informants: upon arrest, advise them they cannot promise light sentences in return for their cooperation as snitches; and instruct them they have a right to consult with an attorney before agreeing to go undercover. If the drug arrestee agrees to help catch other drug offenders, they must receive a certain amount of training.

     I doubt that Rachel's Law has had much impact on how many arrestees drug cops in Florida flip. In my view, the practice of using arrestees as undercover narcotic agents should be prohibited. Unarmed civilians without police training and experience should not be coerced into becoming soldiers in American's drug war.
       

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