BROOKSVILLE — The Spring Hill pizza delivery driver who pretended to be a sheriff's deputy to impress his girlfriend committed a crime, but not a felony, prosecutors say.
Christopher A. Sharp, 37, originally was charged with impersonating a law enforcement officer, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. But prosecutors have decided to downgrade the charge to unlawful use of a police badge, uniform or other type of insignia.
That's a first-degree misdemeanor that could land him in the county jail for a year.
Why the distinction? There is no evidence that Sharp tried to act in an official capacity when he wore a Pasco County Sheriff's uniform pilfered from his sister's boyfriend, a real Pasco deputy, said Assistant State Attorney Jason Smith.
He didn't try to pull over a motorist, for example, or try to question someone, Smith said.
"If he would have acted in some short of authoritative manner, then I think the felony would have fit better," Smith said. "I think it's a great misdemeanor case because he basically admitted to it."
Sharp kept up the charade from about August of last year until early January, according to the Hernando Sheriff's Office. He would come home in uniform and regale the woman, her family and friends with stories of what had happened on his shift.
In fact, investigators say, he was a driver at a Spring Hill Pizza Hut. Sharp would stop on his way home from work and change into the deputy's shirt, along with a pair of Army pants that were the same color as the shirt.
He attended a New Year's Eve party in Hernando Beach wearing the outfit and told guests about a DUI patrol he had conducted earlier that evening, the Sheriff's Office said. On several occasions, investigators said, Sharp showed up at the bar where his girlfriend worked and offered legal advice to patrons. He was wearing civilian clothes but identified himself as a deputy sheriff.
He admitted to investigators that he lied in an effort to impress his girlfriend, the Sheriff's Office said.
Sharp told detectives that he never pretended to be a deputy to anyone but his girlfriend, her family and friends. One witness claims to have seen a gun, but Sharp denies having one, the Sheriff's Office said. Sharp told investigators that he had tried unsuccessfully to land a job with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
He was arrested Feb. 22 and released later that day after posting $2,000 bail, records show.
His attorney, Kristie Ruppe, said prosecutors made the right call by amending the charge. But Ruppe also noted that in 2005 the Florida Supreme Court found the misdemeanor statute to be unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.
The court reversed a conviction of a Pinellas County woman who was stopped while wearing a black T-shirt printed with the official Pinellas County Sheriff's Office star and the word "sheriff" in large letters. She purchased the shirt at a public uniform store and was not asked for credentials during the sale.
The statute says it's unlawful to wear or display any badge, insignia, emblem, identification card or uniform in a way "which could deceive a reasonable person into believing that such item is authorized" by an agency.
"It depends on what you consider to be an intent to deceive," Ruppe said. "Lying to a girlfriend isn't a crime. If it's lying to the public, I don't think that happened. The case is going to turn on how the judge interprets the statute and the deception clause."
The charge is one of two Sharp currently faces.
When his girlfriend learned of the deception, she broke up with him. On Feb. 6, Sharp was arrested in Hernando County and charged with stalking her. That charge is also a first-degree misdemeanor.
Kruppe is representing Sharp in that case, too, but she declined to comment.
Sharp is set to appear next month for status hearings in both cases.
Reach Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes and @hernandotimes on Twitter.