Monday, December 18, 2017
Public safety

Did act of sheriff's captain rise to level of crime?

It's several weeks old, and now just one of many charges of misconduct against Hernando County sheriff's deputies, so here's a refresher on the case of Sgt. Joseph Reid and Capt. Tom Garcia.

Reid, who, like Garcia, worked in the office's vice and narcotics unit, got into a habit of covering personal debts with a pool of cash meant for undercover drug buys.

For a while, Reid returned the money. But in 2011, he told Garcia about a $1,500 shortfall he couldn't repay.

Garcia, his boss, repaid it for him, which was discovered during an investigation last November into Reid's use of the fund.

Reid was charged with grand theft in December. Garcia has been on paid leave while being investigated internally for what Sheriff Al Nienhuis said during a news conference last week was a matter of bad judgment.

But was it also something else — a criminal offense?

It kind of looks that way from reading Florida law, which defines an accessory after the fact as a person who gives just about any help to someone committing a crime.

"Let's just slightly change the scenario and say these guys work at a bank," said Peyton Hyslop, a Brooksville defense attorney and former county judge.

"A clerk takes the money out and a supervisor puts it back in. I can't imagine that the Sheriff's Office wouldn't be arresting that supervisor."

Maybe Garcia could have been charged with a misdemeanor, said the prosecutor on the Reid case, Phil Hanson. But the state would have had to prove some benefit to Garcia, who is still out $1,500. It also would have had to prove Garcia knew he was covering up a crime.

I can see that this might be a borderline case.

But I can also see the benefit to Garcia — preserving, at least for a while, the reputation of a unit that was closely tied to his future career.

As for knowing that he was covering up a crime: He's a highly regarded, veteran law enforcement officer; he probably should have known.

And even if the potential charge isn't serious, it is a serious matter whether Garcia was treated the same as an ordinary resident — or even an ordinary deputy.

Nienhuis promoted Garcia to captain just before the investigation into his department. I'm sure the recent arrests of all five deputies have stung Nienhuis, but I'm quite confident that a charge against someone with the sheriff's brand-new stamp of approval would have stung a little more.

Garcia's treatment also is a serious matter because it gets to the whole point of the news conference — that the public can trust Nienhuis' office because it has shown it is willing to root out its own problems, because he has proven he's just as tough on his own folks as he is on anyone else.

And it's extra serious because Garcia's unit is allowed to work undercover, in secret, and therefore must prove itself extra trustworthy.

With all of that in mind, here is what Nienhuis had to say about the prosecutor's decision not to charge Garcia:

"Maybe the argument is that he tried to help undo a crime."

You know, to me that doesn't sound all that tough.

In fact, if you are a bank manager and the detectives start sniffing around, I don't recommend telling them this — that you weren't covering anything up, you were just trying to "undo" a crime.

I don't think it would fly.

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