Thursday, November 23, 2017
Public safety

For some Pinellas deputies, shoe leather turns into crossing the line

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When it comes to cops making cases, you have to admire good old-fashioned shoe leather, the kind that sharp detectives use to work a crime from all angles and come up with creative ways to catch the bad guys.

But when shoe leather turns into crossing the line, an arrest can't justify everything police did to get there.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has an in-house mess of epic proportions on his hands with what defense lawyers say was a rogue narcotics unit trying to root out marijuana grow houses. (I guess it's good news that in Pinellas County, life was so free of serious drug-related crime involving meth or heroin or prescription drug abuse or overdoses that they could focus on the scourge that was pot growers. But anyway.)

Investigation upon investigation is pending, but already we know enough details to raise eyebrows — like the Progress Energy employee who secretly supplied detectives with information on hydroponic store customers with high power bills, a potential clue to a marijuana growing operation. Or the creepy scenario of a detective disguising himself in a Progress Energy uniform to try to get to the door of a house for a whiff of the distinct smell of marijuana — a smell used to justify search warrants.

More to raise the eyebrows? A neighbor of a man charged with growing pot said she found concrete blocks stacked into a makeshift staircase at the fence between their houses. There's also the deputy who erased a resident's own surveillance recordings, saying he did it because they showed undercover cops' faces, not because it was evidence of police trespassing. Then there's the deputy who refused to answer in a deposition whether he had seen two narcotics detectives climb over fences, or trespass.

Which, by the way, is potentially a crime.

But if they make a bust, hey, why should we care how they got there?

Me, I like rules in place to keep things honest all the way around. Police have an amazing amount of power, and those rules are there to govern it with requirements like obtaining legal search warrants signed by actual judges and following department regulations and protocols. The rules protect me, you and the bad guys, too.

It gets dangerous if rules become mere suggestions, if they are ignored or even scampered over with impunity, like, say, a 7-foot fence that stands between a cop and the private property he wants to enter to find evidence.

If there is any good news in this graphic view we are getting into how sausage gets made, maybe it's that Sheriff Gualtieri is making the right noises and not hiding behind the old reliable "pending investigation" to avoid comment on in-house ugliness. Because how our law enforcement officers conduct themselves matters.

If detectives committed a crime in trying to get evidence, the sheriff told the Times' Stephen Nohlgren, "They are done."

Gualtieri, who has only been top man in the department for a few months and faces a big election against the big-name former Sheriff Everett Rice, faces some fair and pointed questions himself, since he was second-in-command as this played out.

And so court cases and careers are in jeopardy. Potentially something else, too: Our daily faith in the police.

Why does it matter if they followed the rules when they went after the bad guys? Because next time, the property line that gets crossed could be your own.

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