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A Drug Policy Parable

In February 2007, 22-year-old Florida State University student Rachel Hoffman ran a red light, got pulled over, and got busted for having marijuana in the car. Armed with a warrant, on April 17, Tallahassee police searched Hoffman’s apartment and found more marijuana and several ecstasy pills.  Hoffman was promptly arrested and taken to a holding cell, where she was threatened with multiple felony charges.

On May 7, the Tallahassee police made Hoffman an offer. She would be given “leniency” in her prosecution if she agreed to wear a wire and set up a sting deal for the vice unit squad’s investigation of her suppliers. Hoffman was not given a chance to seek counsel from her attorney, family, or friends when the offer was made, and no one was notified when she agreed to take $13,000 in cash to purchase 1,500 ecstasy pills, two ounces of cocaine, and a handgun—far more than she had ever bought before. Two days later, Hoffman’s dead body surfaced.

At a press conference that day, Tallahassee Police Chief Dennis Jones blamed Hoffman for her own death. Jones announced (to an audience that included the victim’s family) that Hoffman “chose to ignore precautions established in a previous briefing as well as the direction of her case agent." After the conference Jones declined to answer how close the police were to Hoffman during the operation, how many officers were involved, where she drove, or how they lost her. In a follow-up statement to the press, Tallahassee Police Department spokesman David McCranie defended the vice unit’s use of Hoffman as an undercover operative explaining, "The nature of the drug business is extremely dangerous, extremely covert. The only way you can infiltrate these kinds of organizations is to utilize the people involved in the trade." He added that the Tallahassee police have used convicted drug offenders as informants "countless" times. "We don't twist arms to get people to do this," McCranie said. "We have people tell us no all the time." He also mentioned several times that Hoffman had broken with protocol, making her "vulnerable to attack."

The backpedaling and blame-shifting by the Tallahassee police department is troubling enough, but what of the practice of sending an untrained 23-year-old out to foil a man who had spent nine months in jail on an aggravated assault charge? No matter how thorough the pre-briefing was for Hoffman, the "protocol" was little more than human baiting. Hoffman’s death also seems to invalidate McCranie's "non-coercion" defense. At the time of her murder, Hoffman was facing charges of possession of ecstasy with intent to sell, possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell, maintaining a drug house, and possession of drug paraphernalia.  Her protocol-breaking decision to go through with the exchange can only be understood when considering that Hoffman was told, in McCranie’s words, "Whatever you can provide, the state attorney will decide how to balance your assistance with your crime." 

Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs says he doesn't think that has ever happened before, though, according the Associated Press, he can't say for sure if police have kept him out of the loop on such cases in the past. Kris Krane, Executive Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, has noted the troubling prevalence of scenario’s like Hoffman’s, "The overwhelming majority of informants are people busted for drugs," Krane said. "Police can do an effective job of scaring people--especially young people--into complicity." Applying his legal expertise and 15 years of experience as police chief San Jose, California, Joseph McNamara of Stanford University’s Hoover Institute laments, “Since the police can't do their job the way they do it with other crimes, they resort to informants and to illegal searches. This is a major problem underlying police integrity throughout the United States.” Whatever the recourse, Rachel Hoffman’s photograph shatters the pretense that the War on Drugs serves, as Reagan’s banner so proudly waved, “to protect our children."

--Bess Kalb