Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Questions remain in warrant flip-flop

Judge Daniel Sleet raised some eyebrows by questioning Tharpe.

Judge Daniel Sleet raised some eyebrows by questioning Tharpe.

TAMPA — Last week, the Hills­borough Sheriff's Office cleared a detective of allegations that he forged a judge's initials.

In the days that followed, questions lingered.

They weren't about the detective. In discreet conversations at the courthouse, people asked:

Why did a judge say unequivocally that he did not alter a document, only to admit a week later that anything was possible because he had no recollection of the event?

Why did another judge phone his colleague to ask about the alleged discrepancy, when the colleague was likely going to be a witness in the case?

Neither of the judges would discuss the case with the Times.

An unusual case

Legal experts agreed that the case was unusual, but they stopped short of suggesting outright misconduct.

The case started out routine. In October 2006, Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe gave sheriff's detectives permission to search a home.

Before the search, Detective Ronnie Cooper realized he had typed the wrong apartment number on the warrant. Cooper says he went to Tharpe's home to get the judge to change it.

Recently, defense attorney Paul S. Carr said he didn't think the changes and accompanying initials matched Tharpe's handwriting.

The attorney aired his concerns in a letter to Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet, who is presiding over the drug case that resulted from the search warrant.

In an interview with sheriff's investigators, Sleet said he notified a prosecutor about Carr's letter. Then Sleet faxed Tharpe the disputed search warrant to get him to verify whether the initials were added by him.

At an April 28 court hearing, Sleet informed attorneys that Tharpe said the handwriting wasn't his.

While investigating allegations about the search warrant, sheriff's attorney Tony Peluso took issue with Sleet's "activist role" in the case. During an interview with Tharpe, the attorney suggested that Sleet had taken advantage of the fact that a witness in the case was also a colleague.

Judges are allowed to consult with one another on issues that will help them carry out their duties. They are not supposed to independently investigate facts.

Legal experts generally agreed that Sleet did not cross a line by making his initial inquiry. Though one expert said it may have been more prudent not to contact Tharpe directly, the consensus was that Sleet properly informed all parties of his findings and let them take things from there.

"I think from the presiding judge's perspective, he saw this as more of a matter of collegiality and courtesy than a breach of protocol," speculated Laurie Levenson, who lectures on judicial ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "It's unusual, but I don't think it's unethical."

A question of politics

Charles Rose, a law professor familiar with Sleet's recent decisions, wondered if the Sheriff's Office's criticism of the judge was political.

In April, Sleet threw out a huge Latin Kings gang case that resulted from months of work by local law enforcement, including the Sheriff's Office, Rose noted.

"I am sure he is not very popular with all those cops who relied on a bad informant," said Rose, who teaches at Stetson University College of Law. "This is not misconduct. That's sour grapes on the part of law enforcement."

On May 7, at defense attorney Carr's request, Tharpe signed a sworn affidavit stating that the initials and altered numbers the search warrant weren't written by him. In doing so, he endangered the reputation of Cooper, the detective.

Yet seven days later, Tharpe, a personal friend of Sheriff David Gee's, said he thinks very highly of the detective. In the same interview with sheriff's investigators, he said he doesn't hold Carr in high regard.

Tharpe also said that he didn't look at the numbers before signing the affidavit. He said he could not dispute Cooper's version of what happened with the warrant because the judge didn't recall dealing with it.

Sheriff's Chief Deputy Jose Docobo shrugged off Tharpe's imprecise memory.

He "made a mistake," Docobo said. "He's only human."

But Levenson, the Loyola professor, said Tharpe's second-guessing raised concerns about his honesty on the affidavit.

"That to me is much more problematic," she said. "He's the one on the hot seat, not the presiding judge."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at or (813) 226-3337.

Questions remain in warrant flip-flop 05/31/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2008 10:02am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Heights Public Market to host two Tampa Bay food trucks


    TAMPA — The Heights Public Market announced the first two food trucks for its "rotating stall," which will feature new restaurants every four months. Surf and Turf and Empamamas will be rolled out first.

    Heights Public Market is opening this summer inside the Tampa Armature Works building.
[SKIP O'ROURKE   |   Times file photo]

  2. Mariners lose lefty Drew Smyly to Tommy John surgery


    SEATTLE — Drew Smyly was the centerpiece to one of Seattle's many offseason moves by general manager Jerry Dipoto. He was a priority acquisition as a proven lefty for the rotation the Mariners believed would thrive pitching at Safeco Field.

    Drew Smyly will undergo Tommy John surgery after being diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Seattle announced the diagnosis on Wednesday, ending Smyly's hopes of returning during the 2017 season. [AP photo]
  3. Author Randy Wayne White could open St. Pete's biggest restaurant on the pier

    Food & Dining

    ST. PETERSBURG — The story begins with Yucatan shrimp.

    St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, pilot Mark Futch, Boca Grande, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, and author and businessman Randy Wayne White,  Sanibel, exit a Maule Super Rocket seaplane after taking a fight around Tampa Bay off the St. Petersburg waterfront, 6/28/17.  White and his business partners are in negotiations with the City of St. Petersburg to build a fourth Doc Ford's Rum Bar & Grille on the approach to the St. Petersburg Pier with a second event space on the pier according to White. The group met near Spa Beach after a ground breaking ceremony for the new pier. "We want to have our business open by the time the pier opens," said White. Other Dr. Ford restaurants are located on Sanibel, Captiva and Ft. Myers Beach. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
  4. Busted: How a Times photographer captured Donald Trump's fake news


    Tampa Bay Times photojournalist Scott Keeler was on assignment last summer for a story about Donald Trump’s presence in Palm Beach, a tale of glamour and conflict. Along the way he inadvertently captured evidence of a …

    Near the main entrance at Mar-a-Lago, the fake Time magazine cover is on display in July 2016.
  5. Jones: Steve Yzerman's plan for getting the Lightning back into the playoffs

    Lightning Strikes

    BRANDON — Seems like forever since the Lightning played a hockey game.

    If the Lightning season started right now, would Steve Yzerman be happy with what he has? "We're still a couple of players short,'' Yzerman said.. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]