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July 20, 2008 -- Tallahassee Democrat (FL)

National Media Interest 'Intense' Over Hoffman Case

By Corey Clark, Democrat Staff Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Original article:

She was supposed to stay in the shadows.

If things had gone according to plan, you never would have heard of 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman. She would have just been another confidential informant, one of more than an estimated 100,000 in the United States who work with police to send someone else to jail.

But after a botched sting operation May 7 and her slaying, Hoffman's life is anything but confidential. Her name has been thrust directly into the national spotlight.

"'60 Minutes' has called, 'Dateline' has called, '20/20' has already been here and filmed," said Lance Block, the attorney for the Hoffman family. " Rolling Stone was here to do a story. I can't tell you how many media representatives have called me. Agents, people that want to do books -- I don't have enough time in the day for it all."

"The media interest has just been so intense."

So much so that Block is utilizing the services of Ron Sachs Communications, a public relations firm in Tallahassee, to deal with the flood of media requests. Or in some cases, demands.

"'60 Minutes' wanted exclusivity," said Marsha Koppe, Vice President of Sachs Communications.

Block and the Hoffman family weren't willing to grant it, so instead "20/20" will be the first national magazine show to deal with the death of Hoffman.

"Right now, and things can always change if a national story breaks or something like that, but it looks like it will air on the evening of July 25," Koppe said. "And it's going to be a package piece with 'Good Morning America.'"

Alexandra Natapoff is hoping Hoffman's "tragic story" wakes the nation up to the controversial use of confidential informants.

Natapoff is a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and one of the nation's leading experts on confidential informants. She has written a book titled "Snitching: Using Criminals to Manage Crime" that will be released by New York University Press, and she testified before Congress last year about a notorious case in Atlanta in which a confidential informant's lead wound up with the police raiding the wrong house and eventually killing an innocent 92-year-old woman named Kathryn Johnston.

Natapoff said Hoffman's case might create a similar fire storm throughout the nation because of who she was. Or more to the point, who she wasn't.

Hoffman wasn't facing serious jail time. She wasn't male. She wasn't uneducated, and she wasn't a minority.

"It's not just that she was merely white, she was also represented with counsel," Natapoff said. "And she had a family that did not think they needed to take this lying down."

One of the many questions raised by the Hoffman case is exactly how much danger confidential informants are in when they work with police?

The answers come from all over the country.

# In 1984, a South Florida confidential informant was shot and killed at a bar in Palm Beach County.

# In August 1989, an informer in New York City was shot and killed so he wouldn't give information to the Drug Enforcement Agency.

# In 1998, a California teenager who had worn a wire during one undercover drug bust was later shot and murdered.

# In 2004, a 20-year-old father of two was gunned down in Brooklyn after leading police to an apartment where a loaded gun and crack were found.

# In 2006, a Pennsylvania man was stabbed more than 20 times and killed during a botched undercover drug buy after police officers lost sight of him.

"It's a routine risk and threat," Natapoff said. "It's no surprise to anyone in the criminal system that something like this would happen. But when the Hoffman family got mad they started asking, 'How could this happen?'"

And almost as importantly, how can it be stopped from happening again?

Block and the Hoffman family are hoping the media attention will spark a reform in how confidential informants are used. As it stands now, police agencies have free reign -- especially when it comes to drug crimes -- to make dangerous, secretive deals with users and dealers.

"There are no checks and balances," Block said.

And that's a problem, according to Natapoff.

While she readily admits confidential informants play a vital role in bringing criminals to justice, she is concerned about the lack of supervision and regulation involved in such a pressurized environment.

"The criminal system tells police officers you need to make drug busts," she said. "And here's a tool that will enable you to do that. We won't make you write it down. There are not any rules. We'll just leave it to your discretion."

Hoffman's case, with the national attention it has brought and will continue to bring, may be a catalyst for change.

"When any incident like this occurs in law enforcement, the command structure has to take a close look at how this happened and why this happened," said former Maryland police officer Rich Roberts, who now serves as the public information officer for the International Union of Police Associations. "Other officers around the country that see this story when '20/20' runs it -- as well as the jurisdictions around Tallahassee that have seen the coverage already -- are going to see what happened there and ask why.

"No one is going to ignore this. I can promise you that."

Natapoff argues there should be more accountability, more documentation and more transparency when it comes to confidential informants. She thinks cases like Hoffman's and Johnston's will help shine a light on this secretive and largely unknown aspect of police work.

"Inch by inch, story by story, you're going to start seeing the ramifications of these actions," she said. "But reform in the criminal justice system is usually one piece of the puzzle at a time."

Also visit our "Informants: Resources for a Snitch Culture" section.

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