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Expecting vagrants, Largo police enter home, find tenants

LARGO — Keith Montgomery had just settled into his bedroom after a morning walk Sunday. He put on his headphones and turned on the radio.

He thought he heard something, but four others live in the transitional housing property, so he thought nothing of it.

Within seconds, two Largo police officers barged into his room and pointed guns and a Taser at him, he said.

"I'm like freaking out by this time," Montgomery, 46, said. "I can't believe this is happening."

The Largo Police Department acknowledged Wednesday that its officers entered the home at 12912 128th Lane N.

According to police spokeswoman Officer Haley Sequeira, police heard from a neighbor just before noon Sunday that people were entering what he believed to be a vacant house.

Officer Carl Carbaugh and Sgt. Andy Hill responded and talked to several other neighbors, who also told them the house was empty, Sequeira said. The officers tried to contact the property owner listed in county records, but could not reach him.

After that, "they basically made multiple attempts to knock on the door and windows to see if someone would come to the door," she said.

Officers eventually realized that the front door was unlocked and they walked in, finding a "sparsely furnished" living room. They heard voices from inside one of the rooms and broke open the door to find out who was inside, Sequeira said.

Several people produced lease documents. The officers apologized about having to break the door, Sequeira said.

But Montgomery, who moved in last month after staying at Pinellas Hope, a facility for the homeless, gave a different account.

After police entered his room, he offered to show them lease documents, but they ordered him to go outside and they entered other rooms, breaking one of the doors, he said. On his way out, Montgomery handed them his paperwork and pointed to phone numbers for the housing managers posted on a wall. He asked officers to call them, he said.

When they didn't, Montgomery dialed one of the numbers on his own phone and passed it to them. They talked to the manager and left, he said.

The city's code enforcement and building departments are investigating whether the residents are there illegally. If their stay is valid, Sequeira said, the city will look into replacing the broken door.

Ravi Kumar, who owns the home, said Wednesday he has leased out rooms in the home.

Jerry Theophilopoulos, a Tarpon Springs attorney not involved in the case, said the officers needed a search warrant to enter the property.

"Regardless of what the neighbors do or do not know, it's a clear civil rights violation along with the destruction of the property inside the house," he said. "What they should have done is knock, which they did, and then left a card with a note to contact them."

Retired Clearwater lawyer Douglas deVlaming disagreed.

"I don't see a violation of constitutional rights in regard to what police did. I think they were investigating a complaint that was made. There was some concern from the neighbors," he said. "The door was open."

Under federal law, officers can enter a residence with a search warrant, if a resident consents, or if there are "exigent circumstances" involved, such as chasing a suspect who may have entered vacant property, Theophilopoulos said.

Largo police said the officers did not violate agency policy because their actions were considered exigent circumstances. According to the Largo policy, "A warrantless search may be made to protect individuals in distress, assist crime victims, or investigate suspicious signs of impending danger."

Laura C. Morel can be reached at (727) 445-4157.

Expecting vagrants, Largo police enter home, find tenants

03/05/14 [Last modified: Thursday, March 6, 2014 2:43pm]
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