Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Public safety

Scrutiny in Pinellas pot-growing cases turns to whether deputies trespassed to get evidence

LARGO — Pinellas County sheriff's Deputy Kyle Alston was asked a disturbing question last month about two narcotics detectives: Had he ever seen them "climb over fences'' to gather evidence against suspected marijuana growers?

"Climb over fences'' is short-hand for trespassing, which is illegal and could jeopardize prosecutions.

Alston, who was under oath, refused to answer.

Now, serious new pressure is escalating within an already troubled narcotics unit.

Lawyers whose clients are accused of growing marijuana at their homes are seizing on Alston's silence. They have subpoenaed the deputy to give a new statement Tuesday. They want to grill him in more detail and — if necessary — ask a judge to order him to talk.

Sheriff's Office internal affairs investigators are questioning Alston, the two detectives he was asked about, as well as supervisors, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Thursday.

At stake: The cases against the pot growers and the deputies' futures.

If detectives trespassed, it would raise "serious questions about their veracity across the board,'' Gualtieri said. "That's a huge problem. Huge.

"That shows that they are not honest and truthful. Not ethical, not moral and are doing wrong things and are taking the position wrongly that the ends justify the means.

"And that will not be tolerated here.''

• • •

The narcotics detectives Alston was asked about, Paul Giovannoni and Michael Sciarrino, played key roles in the camera surveillance of a Largo hydroponic gardening store, which led to the arrests of dozens of people accused of growing pot.

Some have accepted plea bargains or been convicted, but other cases are still pending and could be thrown out if detectives acted improperly, Gualtieri said.

Search warrants usually were based on detectives telling judges that they could smell pot while standing outside property lines.

Defense lawyers contend that officers actually snuck up to houses so they could peek inside, listen for fans and pumps and sniff for marijuana up close.

"If it came to light that they committed a criminal act to acquire evidence, they are done,'' said Gualtieri.

Officers can enter property without permission if, for instance, someone is in danger. Trespassing to gather evidence is a misdemeanor, Gualtieri said. Carry a gun and it could be a felony.

Deputies Giovannoni, 31, Sciarrino, 36, and Alston, 40, collectively have 24 years with the Sheriff's Office. All declined to comment.

• • •

Allegations of misconduct stemmed from months of surveillance at Simply Hydroponics that ended last year, but court cases still remain.

Detectives captured customers' license tag numbers via a pole-mounted camera. A source within Progress Energy secretly supplied billing records that revealed which hydroponics customers had unusually high power usage.

Detectives then tried to collect enough additional evidence to justify a search warrant. In almost all cases, they told judges they could smell pot from outside a property's perimeter.

Growing marijuana can emit a distinctive odor that can travel short distances under ideal conditions.

But defense lawyers were skeptical. They compared notes about their Simply Hydroponics cases, calling themselves the "Scent of Justice Gang," in mocking reference to the sniffing.

Tarpon Springs lawyer Jerry Theophilopoulos has a client, Allen Underwood, with a surveillance system of his own.

Before he was busted, he said, men came on his property at night several times. Sometimes, they jumped his 7-foot fence. His cameras recorded it all, he said.

"I live in a really bad neighborhood,'' Underwood said this week. "I thought it was some thugs trying to break in.''

He didn't call police because he was growing pot.

Then he saw Giovannoni and Sgt. Chris Taylor, 39, a former narcotics supervisor in court. Underwood said he recognized them as two of the trespassers but couldn't prove it because detectives had seized his recorder during the bust. Then Taylor ordered the images erased.

Taylor and Giovannoni denied trespassing, and Taylor said he erased the recordings because they revealed faces of narcotics detectives there to perform a legal search. A federal judge found his statement credible and the Sheriff's Office suspended Taylor five days for the erasure.

Another Scent of Justice lawyer, John Trevena, questioned Giovannoni, who admitted posing in a Progress Energy uniform to entice a suspect to open his front door.

Gualtieri said it was wrong but chalked it up to the creativity of a young detective.

Trespassing is more serious.

Clearwater attorney Douglas deVlaming's client, David Cole, has multiple sclerosis and acknowledges growing pot for his own use. After his arrest, his neighbor found concrete blocks in her yard, stacked up stair-step fashion, next to Cole's fence.

"I did not put them there like that,'' neighbor Wynne Williams said last week.

Then came Tarpon Springs attorney Newt Hudson's deposition of Alston on Feb. 2. Mike Peasley, a private investigator and former narcotics detective hired by the lawyers, had gotten wind that Alston might know about trespassing.

Asked if two colleagues had climbed over fences, Alston "sat there for at least 20 seconds before he asked to take a break,'' Hudson said.

Alston consulted privately with assistant state attorney Anthony Carlow, then refused to answer the question.

Hudson used Alston's silence and other allegations to secure a hearing in May over whether the search warrant — and therefore the case — should be thrown out.

Gualtieri says the activities in question took place before November, when he restructured he narcotics unit. In an interview Thursday he promised to clean up any problems.

"These are serious allegations about serious conduct and we are going to deal with it,'' he said.

Will supervisors be questioned under oath, as well as deputies?

"We are doing that right now,'' Gualtieri said.

Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8442.

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