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Pasco deputies under review for improper database searches

The cases of more than two dozen Pasco sheriff's deputies accused of improperly accessing a driver's license database are under the review of a statewide law enforcement board.

The deputies are not happy about it.

"It should have never gone to the commission," said Sgt. William Lawless, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police and one of the deputies under review. "It should have never gone above what it did."

Here's what happened:

Last year, newly appointed Sheriff Chris Nocco asked his agency to do an audit of members accessing the Driver And Vehicle Information Database, known as DAVID. The database was created in 1999 to give law enforcement quick access to driver's license information. There are many ways to search — by name, by license plate number — giving investigators information such as photos, addresses and birth dates. All law enforcement agencies are supposed to police their own members and monitor for abuse.

Nocco said the Sheriff's Office got a notification from Attorney General Pam Bondi's office that Cpl. Charles Wynn ran her information in DAVID, which is supposed to be used for official law enforcement business only — not for malice or personal gain, such as using the system to look up an ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend or to check out an attractive driver at a red light.

Wynn searched Bondi's information out of curiosity and was given a letter of reprimand, the Sheriff's Office said. For the internal audit, to see if other deputies were improperly searching DAVID, Nocco requested all searches on himself, his wife, command staff members, their spouses and some administrators — a total of 21 people — from Jan. 1, 2011 to Aug. 1, 2011.

The query resulted in 72 searches by 51 employees. Internal Affairs investigated the cases and found 41 members, a mix of deputies and civilian employees, improperly accessed the system. None were found to have been done with malice. Most deputies said they looked people up in the system out of curiosity, such as wanting to know what the new sheriff and his wife looked like.

Others, like Lawless, felt like the search was legitimate. He said he looked up Nocco's address because he heard the sheriff lived within his patrol zone. He said he previously had to respond to a call at former Sheriff Bob White's house, but he only knew the street, not the address, so he lost minutes going to the wrong house. Lawless said he wanted to make sure that didn't happen again. He asked his superiors if they knew where Nocco lived and they said no. So he looked up Nocco in the system, he said, to make sure he knew where to go if the sheriff ever needed him.

"That's my heinous crime," Lawless said. "None of these guys did this for any malice or personal gain or any nefarious reason for any kind.

"It isn't some big scandal."

The disciplines were handled in-house. Most deputies, such as Lawless, got letters of reprimand. He said deputies didn't fight it.

"It was such a minor thing," Lawless said. "Take the letter of reprimand and move on. It's not worth the challenge."

It was done.

And then it wasn't: All because one deputy urinated in the woods.

This year, Detective Monte Schuler was suspended for one day without pay because he broke a surveillance camera with his Sheriff's Office baton. Schuler urinated on the side of the road in Hudson and thought the camera filmed him, records state. It did. The homeowner complained about his damaged camera.

Schuler had to pay for damages and his case was referred to the Criminal Justice Standards & Training Commission, a board of members appointed by the governor that regulates law enforcement officers. In the most severe cases, the board can revoke a person's certification — meaning the person cannot work as a sworn law enforcement officer.

In reviewing Schuler's urination case, the board saw that in 2011 he had been given a letter of reprimand for an improper DAVID search. The board learned of the Sheriff's Office audit and requested all of the information.

So now, the cases that were handled nearly a year ago within the agency are now working their way through the review board. This doesn't apply to civilian employees, so there are 29 Pasco deputies whose cases are scheduled to be heard at an Oct. 31 meeting in Sarasota.

"We are hopeful they are going to say the agency has taken appropriate action," said Jeremiah Hawkes, an attorney and chief of the management services bureau at the Sheriff's Office.

Nocco also said he requested the board take no action.

"Our stance is that we have thoroughly dealt with this matter and our members have been properly disciplined," Nocco said.

Stacy Lehman, training and research manager for the commission, said he couldn't talk specifically about the Pasco cases, but said the commission recently approved guidelines for non-criminal DAVID cases such as this where there is no malice. He said for deputies with one count of improper searching, the board will recommend a letter of reprimand.

For those with two to four counts, the commission will recommend a six-month probation period of the person's law enforcement certification — meaning the person can still work, but can't get any other violations without the possibility of serious discipline. The person will also have to complete an ethics course.

For those with more than four counts, their cases will be reviewed for possible disciplinary actions — which could range from a letter to revoking their certification.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office has two members who fall into this category, deputies Mark Murray and Anthony Justice. Hawkes said both were already suspended for one day without pay.

Hopefully the board "would take that into account," Hawkes said.

Lawless said many deputies are concerned. With or without guidelines, the commission can do what it wants — it can say the deputies have already been disciplined and leave it at that. Or it could impose other sanctions.

"It's something that's obviously gone much further than it ever should have gone," Lawless said.

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6229.

Pasco deputies under review for improper database searches 08/18/12 [Last modified: Saturday, August 18, 2012 2:30pm]

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