Thursday, May 07, 2009

Florida passes compromised snitching reforms

While legislation in Texas is moving along to protect innocent defendants by requiring corroboration to obtain a conviction based on testimony from jailhouse informants, Florida's GOP Governor Charlie Crist just signed a bill (discussed here on Grits previously) to protect the rights of informants themselves. According to the Tampa Bay Times:

The legislation is named for Rachel Hoffman, a Florida State University grad who was murdered while on an undercover drug buy for Tallahassee police a year ago today. ...

"Rachel's Law" calls on agencies to take into account a person's age and maturity, emotional state and the level of risk a mission would entail. Police also would be barred from promising an informer more lenient treatment; only prosecutors and judges can do that.

Not included are several provisions [Rachel] Hoffman's parents said could have prevented their daughter's death, including barring anyone in a drug treatment program, as 23-year-old Rachel was, from going on undercover drug buys. (more background here)

"This bill represents a great consensus," Crist said, flanked by the bill sponsors, Rep. Peter Nehr and Sen. Mike Fasano. "It’s probably not everything everybody wants. But it’s an awful lot of what is good and right and just about making sure that people are more safe."

There are a lot of questionable and disturbing aspects of informant use and it's interesting to see two large, southern states addressing different parts of the problem simultaneously. Maybe in two years here in Texas we can come back to address some of the problems they were confronting this time around in the Sunshine state.

Here's the text of the enrolled version of the Florida bill. My favorite part: Law enforcement must "Provide a person who is requested to serve as a confidential informant with an opportunity to consult with legal counsel upon request before the person agrees to perform any activities as a confidential informant."

However, while establishing a number of new protections, the bill also includes a disappointing caveat that "any failure to abide by the act does not create any additional right enforceable by a defendant in a criminal proceeding." (In essence they had to make the same compromise to pass the bill as was made on Texas' eyewitness ID legislation, which in its current form specifically exempts failure to abide by eyewitness ID procedures from falling under state's statutory exclusionary rule.) I'm not sure exactly how that would work if a defendant is denied the right to counsel before entering a snitch agreement, as now required in Florida law.

Florida's snitch-protection legislation passed unanimously in both chambers. Watered down or not, the fact that it passed and was signed by the Governor in a GOP-controlled state reinforces my sense that the issue of informant-based corruption of the justice system has sturdy, bipartisan legs.

BLOGVERSATION: At the South Carolina Criminal Defense Blog, Bobby Frederick writes:
If a person is trying to get clean or stay clean, they cannot repeatedly go into houses and make drug deals - sooner or later they will use and their recovery will be blown to bits. Many narcotics officers do not care if you stay clean or not - you are a tool that they use to do their job for them. Many narcotics officers do not care that you are placing yourself in danger - again, you are a tool that they require to make drug arrests. Rachel Hoffman's death in Florida, although tragic, was representative of the ethics problems that narcotics officers often ignore in their work and thankfully brought national attention to the problem.


Anonymous said...

Wow, Florida got a lot more than we're getting. Mandating snitches have lawyers before signing informant agreements is HUUUUUGE.

Anonymous said...

When you reference the story in the Tampa Bay Times, what you mean to say is the St. Petersburg Times. The St. Pete Times, Florida's biggest newspaper, owns (They also publish a tabloid version of their paper, *tbt, which stands for Tampa Bay Times, but I presume this is not what you were referring to.)

Anonymous said...

No snitching!