LARGO — Pinellas County lies at the heart of a prescription drug abuse epidemic that is killing eight Floridians a day.
Now comes word that one sheriff's deputy may have worked both sides of the street.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Friday that his office is investigating an allegation that a deputy received and consumed prescription drugs from "the subject of an investigation.''
Gualtieri did not name the deputy or say whether the drug supplier was a dealer or a user. Giving out details of an internal affairs investigation before its conclusion is prohibited by law.
He did say there was no suggestion the deputy intended to sell the drugs.
The "person making the complaint saw the deputy using drugs,'' Gualtieri said, "so the only information we have is that it is personal consumption.''
The deputy "is not known to us to have an addiction problem,'' Gualtieri said, adding that the investigation was in its early stages.
The allegation comes as four detectives in the narcotics unit are on indefinite leave due to allegations that they trespassed to gather evidence against indoor marijuana growers. Because of these allegations, prosecutors threw out 18 criminal cases.
The deputy who reportedly took the prescription drugs was not one of the deputies already on suspension, Gualtieri said.
If the drugs are a Schedule II controlled substance, such as an opiate-based painkiller like OxyContin, just receiving them could result in felony charges, said Bobby Sullivan, a retired Pasco County sheriff's captain who teaches law enforcement and police ethics classes at Saint Leo University.
Anyone found guilty of felony charges automatically loses state certification as a law enforcement officer.
Still, how police agencies and prosecutors might deal with such cases could vary depending on circumstances, Sullivan said.
"Sometimes sloppy medicine creates addictions,'' he said. "We have teachers, lawyers, bank vice presidents, normal people on the street become addicts because a doctor pumped them full of opiates and then cut them off with no withdrawal. Not because of their own irresponsible behavior.''
In such cases, prosecutors sometimes accept misdemeanor pleas or diversionary programs into rehabilitation. Judges might withhold a finding of guilt.
"Just because he or she is a police officer doesn't mean they shouldn't have the same due process'' as any citizen, Sullivan said.
On the other hand, if a cop gets pills from a drug dealer instead of making an arrest, the officer might well be fired, even if he or she is addicted "and not thinking straight,'' Sullivan said.
"But you don't necessarily throw him or her in jail.''
Some agencies, for example, might take away the badge, but still provide rehabilitation and a civilian desk job.
Punishment — both on the job and in the courts — is likely to be harsher if an officer started taking pills recreationally, he said.
And if a deputy, even an addicted one, sells some of the pills?
"He or she should be fired and sent to jail,'' Sullivan said.
Gualtieri said his investigation into alleged misconduct in the marijuana cases is taking longer than he expected, in part because some defense attorneys and their clients are not cooperating with his internal affairs office.
Seminole resident Allen Underwood complained that his surveillance cameras caught narcotics detectives trespassing and jumping his fence, but then they destroyed the video images when they entered his house with a search warrant.
Gualtieri ordered that the original investigation into the complaint be redone after the Tampa Bay Times reported that it was full of leading questions and conflicting statements by deputies.
One part of Underwood's complaint, which was not addressed the first time, involved the detectives' claim on the search warrant application that they could stand on the sidewalk, 15 to 20 feet from the house, and smell marijuana growing inside.
Underwood's lawyer said the sidewalk was actually 30 feet from the house and 67 feet from where the marijuana was found.
Now, "we wanted to go to Underwood's house and take measurements,'' but he would not allow it, Gualtieri said.
"That's baloney,'' responded Tarpon Springs attorney Jerry Theophilopoulos, who represents Underwood. He said internal affairs investigators promised they would call him before approaching Underwood, but they showed up unannounced.
"After all the sheriff and his crew has done to (Underwood), he does not want to ever talk with these people again unless I am with him,'' Theophilopoulos said. "We don't trust them.''
Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at (727) 893-8442 or [email protected]