Should the City Be Liable for Rachel’s Death?

Rachel Hoffman was a 23-year-old graduate of Florida State University who was arrested for possession of marijuana in 2007, and then while under court supervision was arrested again in 2008.  Police tried to get her to identify other marijuana users in exchange for reduced charges, but Rachel wouldn’t rat out her friends.  So the police gave her the opportunity to participate in a  sting operation instead, to get some bigger targets.  She was given $13,000 to buy drugs and a gun from Deneilo Bradshaw and Bradshaw’s brother-in-law Andrea Green on May 7, 2008.

During the sting police lost track of Rachel, and her dead body was discovered 50 miles away two days later.  In separate trials both Bradshaw and Green have been convicted of murder.

In one sense the sting worked better than the police anticipated.  They had hoped to be able to get Bradshaw and Green on drug charges, but actually got them on the bigger charge of murder.  That success came at the cost of Rachel Hoffman’s life.

The murder convictions behind them, Hoffman’s family is now suing the City of Tallahassee, seeking damages in a civil suit.  Should the city be liable for Rachel’s death?

There is no question the Tallahassee Police Department made many mistakes by putting an inexperienced girl who had already demonstrated a penchant for irresponsible and risk-taking behavior in a position of dealing by herself with two individuals the Department knew were dangerous.  Indeed, the Department admitted this, disciplined several policemen, and gave its severest penalty to the officer who recruited and was handling Rachel, Ryan Pender, by firing him.

While I have much sympathy for Rachel’s family, it is unclear to me that the city should be liable.  The city is not a person and cannot make decisions — good or bad — and any monetary liability would come out of the pockets of the city’s taxpayers.  I live in Tallahassee, I am one of those taxpayers, and I was appalled when I learned the facts of this case.  Am I now responsible for paying civil damages to Rachel’s family?  The court will decide.

Meanwhile, in an interesting companion case, Ryan Pender, who is represented by a union that is appealing his firing, will be going to arbitration to see whether he is entitled to reclaim his job.  It would be ironic if Mr. Pender got his job back, essentially reversing the earlier judgment that he erred, but the city lost its lawsuit, essentially saying the citizens of Tallahassee are responsible for the loss of Rachel.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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