NEW PORT RICHEY — For decades, TV sleuths from Joe Mannix to Veronica Mars solved crimes without a badge — just their wits and a couple of commercial breaks.
What they did wasn't real. But was it ever legal?
According to a recent ruling by a Pasco circuit judge, the answer to that is: yeah, maybe.
It's a thought-provoking issue that has come up in a very serious court case: the DUI manslaughter charge against Samuel Lively Stockdale.
Authorities say Stockdale, 22, was high on drugs in 2006 when he lost control of a stolen car and hit a semitrailer head-on, killing passenger Quintin Lee Knox, 22.
But the defense has its own theory: Stockdale was rear-ended, and that sent him into the semitrailer's path.
To prove its theory, the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office got a judge to sign a search warrant in December authorizing the seizure of the vehicle that defense witnesses say hit Stockdale first: a white 1993 Ford Bronco.
That was unusual in that it's usually law enforcement officers who bring search warrants to judges to sign.
The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office wanted the warrant thrown out. The state said the warrant was riddled with mistakes and that there's no evidence that the Bronco actually is evidence.
Prosecutors also made an argument that strikes at the heart of everything that Frank and Joe Hardy and Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown stand for: No one else, save law enforcement, can investigate crimes.
But Circuit Judge Thane Covert ruled last week that that's not what state law says.
"There is no exclusive language that I found or that has been presented to me that indicates the State Attorney's Office is the only agency that can issue a search warrant," the judge said Friday. "Under Florida law and in some other jurisdictions, I see nothing that prohibits the seeking of the search warrant (by someone other than law enforcement) under the appropriate circumstances."
In fact, the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office got its own search warrant in a 1997 Pinellas armed robbery case, too. That turned up evidence that led the state to drop charges, possibly saving that defendant from multiple life sentences. The lawyer who drafted that warrant, Chris Helinger, is now a circuit judge herself.
Public Defender Bob Dillinger said Tuesday that as far as he knows, his is the only public defender's office in the country to obtain its own search warrants.
"I think the public wants to make sure that the right thing is done …," he said. "When you look at what happened in that first warrant case, it shows you the value in having access to a search warrant."
So does that mean we can all be TV detectives now?
"Why couldn't you, according to the judge?" said Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis on Tuesday. "That's the potential problem with this."
There are some caveats. The judge did note, and Halkitis mentioned as well, that federal law specifically limits the power to obtain search warrants to federal officers only.
Not for amateurs
Stetson University College of Law professor Robert Batey agreed with the judge's reading of state law, that Florida statutes do not prohibit you from getting your own search warrant.
But he said the judge's ruling isn't an invitation for amateur gumshoeing in real life. The warrants still have to be signed by judges, Batey said, and they will prevent abuse.
So perhaps sleuthing is best left up to TV detectives such as Jim Rockford and Thomas Magnum — or in Pasco County, Barnaby Jones and Jessica Fletcher.
"People might be tempted to do their own sort of personal investigation," the professor said. "But they still have to go to court to get their own search warrant.
"I expect the judge to say: What are you doing?"
Dillinger agreed: "They can say, 'No way.' "
After refusing to throw out the warrant in the Stockdale case, the judge Friday ordered both sides to debate the value of the potential evidence at another hearing.
That's because the defense was still fighting to get the white Bronco tested for paint transfer from the yellow 2004 Chevy Cavalier that Stockdale was driving.
But on Tuesday, the State Attorney's Office dropped its challenge to the defense's evidence, confident that forensic science will show that the Bronco wasn't involved in the case.
Halkitis said his agency wants the Public Defender's Office to pay to have the Bronco towed to a state crime lab and pay to have it tested.
"We want the public defender to decide what they want to test," Halkitis said, "and test it."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.