Rachel's Law Passes Senate Committee

A push to regulate the use of confidential informants cleared an important hurdle on Wednesday, but only after the heart-wrenching pleas of a grieving father left some lawmakers wondering whether "Rachel's Law" goes far enough.

The bill is named after 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman, a recent FSU graduate who was slain last year after she was recruited to serve as a confidential informant for the Tallahassee Police Department.

Already serving in a court-ordered treatment program when police found drugs in her apartment, Hoffman agreed on May 7 to wear a wire and take $13,000 on a drug buy that also included the purchase of a gun from two suspected dealers. Her body was found in the woods in Taylor County 36 hours later.

Pausing frequently to choke back tears, Irv Hoffman pleaded with lawmakers to provide greater protections for young people like his daughter, who get in trouble with the law and are willing to, "do anything to escape prosecution."

"Sending her out there to these two dangerous individuals was like feeding a lamb to the wolves," Hoffman said.

Rachel's parents initially wanted to force police to tell potential informants of their rights to an attorney before recruiting them, to ban the use of informants who are in drug treatment and to ban nonviolent informants from participating in stings that involve violent suspects.

The state's most powerful law-enforcement groups, including the Florida Sheriffs Association and the Florida Police Chiefs Association, balked. The compromise, (SB 604) by Sen. Mike Fasano, instead forces departments to adopt uniform standards that take into account an informant's age, maturity level and substance-abuse history.

After hearing Hoffman's testimony, some members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee thought the compromise was too weak. Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, wanted to know why police shouldn't be forced to read a suspect his rights before sending him undercover.

Michael Ramage, general counsel for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said potential informants are often sent back on the streets within hours of being detained. Holding them until they can meet with an attorney would risk letting their arrest leak out and destroy their value as informants, he said.

"It will bring the use of confidential informants to a screeching halt in most cases," Ramage said.

The committee split 4-3 on an initial vote, but the bill cleared the committee unanimously after Fasano promised to add more protections at the next committee hearing.

"We all agree that protecting life is of primary importance," Fasano said.

Earlier update

Speaking softly, but firmly, in a hushed committee room, Margie Weiss made a successful legislative debut on Tuesday, convincing a House panel to approve Rachel's Law on behalf of her slain daughter.

Rachel Hoffman was a 23-year-old recent Florida State University graduate in a court-ordered drug treatment program last year when she agreed to wear a wire for the Tallahassee Police Department.

She was found shot to death in May, 36 hours after being given $13,000 in cash and sent to buy drugs and a gun from two suspected dealers who now face murder charges.

The measure (HB 271) by Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs, seeks greater oversight in the use of confidential informants.

"She made some mistakes, but her death was absolutely unnecessary," said Weiss, a massage therapist from Safety Harbor. "She died horribly . . . My daughter's murder was far from an isolated mistake."

The House Public Safety and Domestic Security Policy Committee unanimously approved a compromise measure, which was initially targeted for defeat by the state's most powerful law-enforcement agencies. Sponsors agreed to drop many of the provisions -- including requiring prosecutors to approve the use of an informant -- after police warned that it would be cumbersome, put informants at greater risk and threaten their most effective law-enforcement tool.

"The last thing we want to do is hamper the ability of law enforcement to catch the bad guys," Nehr said.