A glowing beacon of positivity from our supposedly tight-knit festival community, our family, was murdered as a result of greedy, incompetent police officers abusing the Confidential Informant system. The festival community should be outraged at the murder of one of our own under the supervision of a misguided police department, but the collective voice of the festival/live music community has not come together as it must to demand change. A drug dealer shot Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old recent FSU grad at the time, multiple times after discovering she was wearing a wire, but the police who forced her, under duress and uninformed, into the terrifying situation that ended her life are just as responsible, if not more so, than the triggerman and his accomplice. Rachel had been caught with a relatively small amount of cannabis and a search of her home turned up a few ounces of cannabis along with a small amount of MDMA. Rachel was pressured into turning in bigger marijuana dealers, but refused and instead agreed to spend $13,000 on MDMA, cocaine, and a gun. Rachel was not known to be familiar with cocaine or firearms. She was put in this deadly situation as a result of drug prohibition—specifically cannabis and MDMA prohibition in Rachel’s case, both drugs which have been found to be relatively safe. Regardless, cannabis possession and distribution is seen as a serious crime in Florida, for now.
Asset forfeiture provides a massive profit incentive for police to make drug busts and there is a concerning lack of legislation or even law enforcement policy/procedures regarding the use of Confidential Informants in drug busts, a deadly combination. Tallahassee PD were in a situation in which it was legal to pressure a terrified young woman with no training, who may have been involved in very small-scale drug dealing, into buying $13,000 worth of cocaine and MDMA along with a handgun. Since Rachel’s death, the FL state legislature has passed some restrictions on the use of confidential informants in drug cases in what is fittingly called “Rachel’s Law,” stating “a confidential information safety act that requires law enforcement to take into account someone’s age and maturity, emotional state and the level of risk a mission would require before sending them out on a sting Under the law, police cannot promise an informant more lenient treatment, as they did with Hoffman”. Rachel was clearly not in the proper emotional state to be part of such a high stakes sting operation, as can be seen from the tears streaming down her cheeks in the arrest photos. I doubt that the law stops police from offering deals to drug defendants in exchange for lower sentences and it remains to be seen if law enforcement become more circumspect in their use of CI’s.
I did not ever personally meet Rachel, but her involvement with festival culture and involvement with MDMA and cannabis do not paint a picture of a woman who was comfortable around firearms. The police officers overseeing her must knew she was in over her head, but insist that drug informants are just doing what they usually do, but while under police supervision. Rachel was not meeting with friends on the night she died. At sentencing, her killer, Deneilo Bradshaw, faced a potential death penalty. Because of the need to climb the chain as quickly as possible to make the big seizure, Tallahassee PD officers, considering Rachel Hoffman a criminal, sent her to purchase drugs and a gun from someone she didn’t know. Now after her murder, her murderer could be executed and the police will have a few less drug dealers to worry about… for a day or two until others move in to take their place. This police-initiated violence must stop. Killing Mr. Bradshaw does absolutely nothing except ruin another family. Why are we allowing this to happen to our friends in our communities? Tallahassee PD seems to be taking the stance that some criminals took each other out and now the state will finish off the last one with death or prison. The police had no regard for the fact that Rachel was really only involved with cannabis and, because of her commitment not to turn in any marijuana dealers, Rachel was used in a sting operation to meet strangers to purchase cocaine and a gun. Tallahassee PD saw it as a criminal (someone who is expendable in their eyes) killing another criminal when Rachel died. Justice will be served when Mr. Bradshaw is punished, if Tallahassee PD is to be believed, but that will accomplish nothing. Rachel and Deneilo’s customers have long since found new sources for cannabis, MDMA, and cocaine if they want those substances.
Rachel did not seek legal advice from an attorney and the attorney who had handled her previous drug arrest (for cannabis) was not contacted. Rachel naively believed that the police would protect her if she just did as she was told. In fact, an officer involved with the investigation stated that making offers to un-booked drug defendants was a regular practice and attorneys were rarely contacted. She was used as an untrained Confidential Informant to buy a gun with extremely limited police supervision. Tallahassee PD did not feel that they had a duty to protect or train Rachel because she was a criminal. Florida’s draconian drug laws, specifically regarding cannabis, allowed police to make vicious threats regarding the prison time that Rachel was facing, especially because she had recently been referred to a drug court diversion program after an earlier arrest for cannabis possession. Rachel was not told that law enforcement officers do not have the power to make deals with someone they arrest without involving attorneys, and the police certainly implied that, by participating in this bust, Rachel would be able to go home afterwards. One of the most frightening aspects of Rachel’s case is that the police did not do anything wrong or illegal as far as our government is concerned. Florida is not a good place to use or sell cannabis. That may change in 2014 as United for Care pushes for medical marijuana in 2014, but the result remains to be seen. Tallahassee Police were not only enabled by our state and federal governments, but actually were encouraged by drug war legislation to put Rachel in a deadly situation for which she could not possibly have been prepared.
Sadly, our state and nation’s prohibitionist policies, specifically asset forfeiture policies related to drug crimes, actually give police a significant profit incentive to use untrained Confidential Informants to make drug busts. Police around the country have consistently opposed any regulation or oversight of the way in which they use Confidential Informants because, as many narcotics officers/detectives will admit, they rely on CI’s to make high level drug busts and insist that restricting the use of CI’s would cripple their ability to enforce drug laws. Police rely on high level drug busts to seize the assets of drug dealers as proceeds of crime or property used in the commission of a crime, which means that law enforcement agencies make hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars each year from asset forfeiture. In 2012, the DEA seized $750 million in assets. No crime has to be committed and no arrest has to be made for law enforcement to seize assets based on a preponderance of evidence suggesting possible past or future involvement of the asset, not even the person, in criminal activity involving drugs. Large amounts of cash are frequently seized because police supposedly suspect that anyone carrying a large amount of cash plans to buy drugs or is selling drugs. People with dark skin or on their way to a festival are most likely to fall victim to and be ruined by asset forfeiture. Many victims of civil asset forfeiture (where no arrest is made) lack the resources to get any of their assets returned as asset forfeiture is not a profitable area of specialty for attorneys and, even with a good attorney (which is not free), it is nearly impossible to have all of your assets returned.
Many people are able to travel from festival to festival by selling pins or clothing or jewelry and vendors deal almost exclusively in cash. The amount of cash that festival vendors carry is large enough for police to seize on suspicion of involvement in drug activity and is generally in the smaller denominations that law enforcement associates with drug dealing. Seizing the assets of a vendor travelling between festivals often means that they are broke and stuck far from home, without the resources needed to hire an attorney to get their assets back. Their only hope is for a member of their family, often meaning a member of the festival community, to come to their aid. If this hypothetical vendor decides to give another member of the festival community a ride to the next festival in exchange for gas money and that person happens to have drugs on them, then the vendor’s assets and vehicle can be seized even if they did not have knowledge that drugs were in their vehicle and had no intention of buying drugs at any point. Many law enforcement agencies will admit that they rely on asset forfeiture as an essential part of their operational budgets, though forfeiture funds are intended for use in purchasing additional or supplemental, specialized equipment that departments need. Law enforcement’s reliance on Confidential Informants to lead them to big drug busts and potential financial windfalls means that there are many, many more Rachel Hoffman’s in this country being pressed into working as CI’s in drug busts so police can work their way up to big-time dealers with significant assets to seize.
By ending the use of CI’s in narcotics investigations, we can deal a serious blow to police departments’ ability to make drug cases. Through forfeiture reform, we can remove the profit incentive for making these drug cases, at which point law enforcement agencies will operate on much smaller budgets and become more circumspect in their policing practices. Without even ending drug prohibition, we can strongly discourage police from targeting anyone involved with small amounts of drugs because it will not make financial sense for law enforcement agencies to arrest non-violent drug offenders.
Forfeiture reform will allow police to target violent criminals and raise their frequently embarrassingly low clearance rates for homicides in cities where there is drug money to be seized. I know that it is different elsewhere, but when police departments in central Florida look to save money, DUI enforcement is consistently a lower priority than arresting marijuana users. That’s a misguided allocation of resources. Watch The Wire for a frighteningly realistic portrayal of a police department with a sub-50% homicide clearance rate that continues to pour resources into trying to make drug cases. Characters come and go, but the supply of drugs in a semi-fictionalized Baltimore is remarkably steady throughout the series. The constant supply of drugs means that there is always a new drug case to be made and the work of the detectives and officers in the show is frequently rewarded by promotions.
You can take an unsympathetic view of Rachel’s situation and say that she decided to be a snitch and this was a risk of which she should have been aware. Rachel’s decision to avoid marijuana dealers she knew in favor of doing a buy-bust gun purchase from some unknown dealers may seem strange, but it speaks to her commitment to people involved with a drug traditionally associated with festivals (cannabis). Rachel was forced into this position due to a myriad of structural circumstances encouraging police officers to force her to act as a CI without proper guidance, training, or an understanding of what she was agreeing to or what the risks would be. Remember, she was a 23-year-old recent college graduate who was always described as a happy, loving person and her involvement in consumption or small-scale distribution of cannabis and MDMA led police to believe that she was their connection to some dark druggie underworld. Anyone who is part of the festival community, even in Florida, understands that cannabis and MDMA distribution and use are not associated with firearms. Firearms are entirely against the norms of festival culture and I have to believe that Rachel was terrified at the prospect of purchasing a handgun. As a 23-year-old recent college grad who had been held in custody for hours with enough prison time to ruin her life hanging over her head, it’s hard to blame her for just doing what the police said she needed to do to go home rather than be thrown in jail with the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence ahead of her.
Arresting a single murderer, rapist, or other violent predator takes a lot of manpower and financial resources. It simply is not cost-effective or profitable for police departments to protect their communities from violent criminals if those violent criminals are not involved in the distribution of drugs, which adds the profit incentive of asset forfeiture. Police departments tend to see all felony arrests equally regardless of the crime committed. A detective who rounds up a ring of 25 drug dealers and seizes a quarter of a million dollars over a 3-month investigation looks like he’s doing a hell of a lot more than the homicide detective who has spent all year tracking down one brutal murderer. The hours involved in policing drug dealers often mean that narcotics investigators may clock a lot of overtime. There simply is not any profit incentive for law enforcement agencies to investigate violent criminals not involved in drugs when there is a limitless supply of potentially lucrative drug cases to be made. Asset forfeiture is perhaps one of the most significant reasons for the massive growth in the percentage of any given police department assigned to narcotics investigation.
Police corruption is another issue entirely as the actions of Tallahassee PD were likely justifiable under federal and state laws at the time as they have not been particularly shy about admitting to their disregard for Rachel. Narcotics officers involved in big raids for multiple years may become tempted to take a bit off the top for themselves when making seizures. An idealistic young cop might enthusiastically make these busts in a misguided attempt to eradicate drugs from our society, but after doing the same thing for year after year and seeing no change, then why not take some extra cash to supplement your unfairly low salary? We must not forget how police reach the big-time dealers: by forcing young people with relatively small amounts of drugs in their possession (like Rachel Hoffman) into working as unpaid, untrained Confidential Informants. An officer who made the deal with Rachel commented that these kind of deals are offered to “countless” drug defendants. Police were not profiting directly from Rachel’s arrest, but by forcing her to work as a CI they were hoping to score big eventually as they moved their way up the chain. Rachel just happened to be a convenient tool that was legally at their disposal to use. There is a lot of pain and horror and many lives are ruined along the way to large drug seizures, which ultimately have little to no effect on the supply, cost, or demand for drugs. Law enforcement officers are totally aware of the fact that they can never make a dent in the supply of drugs and I don’t believe that they even really want to at this point. As a former LAPD Deputy Chief put it, “it’s a cash grab, pure and simple.” There is no incentive to eradicate drugs (even if that were possible) when your department relies on a steady stream of drug busts in order to seize assets, which often make up a significant portion of an LE department’s budget.
Our country’s prohibitionist stance and policies allowing law enforcement seizure of any property potentially associated with drugs (based on a preponderance of evidence) led to the death of a beautiful, vibrant young woman who was part of the festival community that I have recently become involved with through volunteering with the AMPLIFY Project. AMPLIFY is a side project of Students for Sensible Drug Policy that works to bridge the gap between direct service harm reduction providers and drug policy reform advocates. Rachel’s death is an outrage that was remembered in a beautiful way at a regional festival in mid-May 2013, the Purple Hatters Ball at Spirit of the Suwanee Music Park. The energy and passion of the people involved was really beautiful. Artists, promoters, and organizers all encouraged the crowd to keep Rachel’s memory alive and use the energy they felt throughout the weekend to spread positive change in their communities, with Mama Margie asking for support for the Rachel Morningstar Foundation, dedicated to ending the use of Confidential Informants to make drug cases.
Rachel’s story and her mother Margie’s words stayed with me over the following weeks as I got ready to volunteer for AMPLIFY at a major festival, Summer Camp 2013 in Chillicothe, IL. Our booth was set up in the social justice non-profit “Make a Difference Area” and we were given the chance to put on a workshop on the Soulshine Stage about the AMPLIFY Project and our vision of music as a movement for social change. I took the opportunity during my time on stage to discuss our beautiful celebration of Rachel’s life at Purple Hatters Ball a couple weeks prior and tell the story of her tragic death while under the supervision of Tallahassee PD. The people who had gathered for our workshop on that Sunday afternoon were receptive and supportive of my calls to end the use of Confidential Informants in drug cases, but there weren’t many people who asked for more information about the story and what they could do to help and I was upset at the lack of outrage. I’ve only recently gotten involved in festival culture, but it feels like a big family where everyone helps to support everyone else. There should be more outrage regarding Rachel’s situation or at least a strong drive to change prohibitionist drug policies. The festival community must unify and make our voices heard in response to government indifference for the safety and life of Rachel Hoffman, a member of our community. Think about her case, think about her murder, think about your friends, think about others in the festival community, and understand that many of these people you consider family could have been Rachel Hoffman.
Rachel Hoffman’s murder and the position that she was put in were unfortunately a result of prohibitionist policies that encourage all police departments to pressure anyone arrested on drug charges to turn in dealers above them in order to avoid life-destroying, draconian prison sentences for felony drug possession or distribution. Police will continue this process until they have caught the big fish, and seized every asset possible, and then they start over, watching the violence unfold as new dealers fight it out to fill the void in the market and become the next target for law enforcement. To a young, terrified recent college grad, being pressured into working as a CI then subsequently being used to purchase a gun and more drugs than she had likely ever dealt with was a horrifying situation to be put in. The massive profit motive for law enforcement agencies to bust the largest drug dealers through the use of CI’s in order to seize assets along with the general lack of regulation regarding the use of Confidential Informants means that many members of the festival community could very easily find themselves in the same position as Rachel. This is especially true when highway patrolmen or small town sheriffs near remote festival locations decide they are going to specifically target festival attendees.
In May, I spent an intense 10 days volunteering at the AMPLIFY booth at Summer Camp 2013 then put on a suit and took a step back from a wonderful, but muddy festival to attend and volunteer at Club Health San Francisco 2013 the following week. I realized that I was correct in my belief that the festival community is all one large global family. I also realized that drug prohibition is the main barrier to making nightlife safer. Asset forfeiture is a major tool used by nearly every law enforcement agency to wage war on festival culture in the U.S. However, not only are people in the U.S. working to change the status quo and improve harm reduction, but there are people all over the world working to preserve their form of nightlife or festival culture. We must work together to improve the safety of our events despite the best efforts of law enforcement to keep these events dangerous by banning harm reduction practices such as reagent testing and opposing drug education. Drug prohibition ultimately forms the point of origin for nearly all problems faced by bars, nightclubs, and festivals, and creates the greatest barrier to effective harm reduction. Members of the festival and nightlife communities, which overlap heavily in the challenges we face, must make our voices heard in the drug policy reform community and mainstream society, including politics, to prevent the persecution of young people like Rachel due to absurd laws that provide a greater incentive for drug enforcement over prevention of or investigation into violent crimes
Part 2 coming soon. Stay tuned for more tips on staying safe from forfeiture units, how to advocate for policy change and an intense exploration of what the Camp Zoe seizure along with Jimmy Tebeau’s plea and imprisonment means for the festival community.
The U.S. government has declared war on the festival community and we must unite to do what we can to put an end to drug prohibition to improve harm reduction and treatment services. The drug policy reform community must work with nightlife/festival communities to address where substance use occurs, discussing how and why different substances may cause problems.
Initial inspiration for this article came from reading Ryan Neeley’s article on The Grateful Web: “Governments Secret War on Music Festivals” and speaking with Eapen Thampy (ED, Americans for Forfeiture Reform)—thank you for the idea and forum to expand on my thoughts.
I read James Bovard’s “The Continuing Forfeiture Scourge” immediately upon completing this article and was stunned at its applicability to what I have discussed. Bovard explains a lot of these concepts in more depth, more explicitly and eloquently than I have done here.