What protections are due informants?

Police in Tallahassee find themselves facing massive criticism after the death of an informant in a drug investigation. Rachel Hoffman agreed to become an informant and even targeted her own dealers after her arrest on charges of possession of marijuana and Ecstasy. The 23-year-old already had a history of drug arrests and wanted to mitigate her eventual prosecution, but she didn’t follow instructions on the buy — and paid for it with her life:

Tallahassee police officials are on the defensive after the killing of a young Florida woman who was serving as a
confidential narcotics and weapons informant in a sting operation that ended with her death.

The body of Rachel Morningstar Hoffman, 23, was found Friday in rural Taylor County, southeast of Tallahassee, after a two-day search that began when she decided to meet Deneilo Bradshaw, 23, and Andrea Green, 25, at a location that was not the agreed-upon spot for a staked-out drug and weapons buy.

Authorities were planning to arrest Bradshaw and Green after the pair unloaded 1,500 pills of ecstasy, crack cocaine and a gun to Hoffman, who agreed to work undercover for police in exchange for possible leniency in an April drug charge that came one year after she was involved in a marijuana bust.

Instead, Hoffman left the public park where the deal was supposed to occur and met Bradshaw and Green somewhere else, a choice that Tallahassee police spokesman David McCranie said made her vulnerable to attack.

“Safety is paramount,” McCranie told ABC News. “The investigator said ‘Don’t do it.’ We call these things off all the time. But Rachel went ahead and met Green and Bradshaw and that ultimately lead to her murder.”

The police rely on informants to find the bigger fish in drug-dealing and illegal-weapons networks, as well as many other crimes. They need their informants alive in order to successfully prosecute the bigger targets, so just for that reason alone they do their best to protect those who choose to work with them. As the spokesman in the interview notes, the informers know how to operate within these illicit networks based on the same experiences that led to their arrests in the first place.

Rachel Hoffman’s death is tragic, but it seems a stretch to blame the police. First, the police certainly didn’t force her to repeatedly break the law over a period of years, putting her in position to receive a significant sentence for her most recent arrest. They also didn’t force her to become an informant. She could have chosen to face the charges in court and take her chances with the jury and the judge. Finally, the police told her not to change locations for the buy to protect her from harm. For that matter, if she went to an unsurveilled location, Hoffman wouldn’t have provided the police with any usable evidence, calling into question what she hoped to accomplish.

Tallahassee should conduct an investigation to ensure that all the facts become known, but on the face of this story, the police have nothing to defend. They did their best to keep her from making the mistake that cost Hoffman her life. They treated her like thousands or perhaps millions of informants around the nation that want to cooperate with law enforcement for tangible personal rewards. She already led a high-risk lifestyle, including associating with the two men who wound up murdering her. The police offered her a way out of that trap, but in the end, Hoffman didn’t take the necessary steps to protect herself.