Monday, June 18, 2018
Public safety

Pinellas sheriff places four officers on leave over pot farm cases

LARGO — Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Thursday that he has put a sergeant and three deputies on administrative leave, pending the outcome of an internal investigation into how his narcotics unit handled indoor pot farm cases.

The investigation began about a week ago amid allegations that detectives had trespassed on suspects' properties to gather evidence.

"Based on information we continue to receive, it appears best to put Kyle Alston, (Sgt.) Chris Taylor, (Paul) Giovannoni and (Michael) Sciarrino on administrative leave and have them relieved of all responsibilities," Gualtieri said. By union contract, the men will continue to be paid.

"The investigation is being done in a comprehensive, thorough way, but I think (the suspensions are) the right thing to do for the interests of the citizens of Pinellas County."

Gualtieri would not elaborate on why he stripped the officers of their duties, because the internal affairs investigation is ongoing. None of the officers responded to a request for comment.

Giovannoni and Sciarrino were lead detectives on cases stemming from a nearly two-year camera surveillance of Simply Hydroponics, a Largo supply store sometimes frequented by marijuana growers. The surveillance ended last fall.

Taylor was their supervisor and Alston was a former narcotics detective who recently refused to answer under oath when a defense lawyer asked about any trespassing by Giovannoni and Sciarrino.

To persuade judges to sign search warrants, officers often said they could stand on public property and smell pot growing inside houses. High-grade, budding marijuana emits a distinctive smell.

Defense lawyers contend that officers were actually trespassing so they could sniff at windows up close, listen for pumps and fans and find other evidence of an indoor grow farm.

Trespassing to collect evidence is illegal. Armed trespassing is a felony.

Taylor was recently suspended for five days without pay for ordering the erasure of images on a digital recorder seized from one suspect during a bust. The recorder was connected to an outdoor surveillance system, and the suspect claimed it showed Taylor and Giovannoni jumping over his fence and into his back yard days before they showed up with a search warrant and found his pot plants.

Both officers denied trespassing. Taylor said he ordered the erasure because images of undercover officers who had entered the suspect's house during the bust had been recorded.

Earlier this week, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office dropped charges against St. Petersburg resident David Cole, who said he was growing pot to relieve his multiple sclerosis symptoms. Alston was due to give sworn testimony in Cole's case, but that testimony was canceled when the charges were dropped.

Gualtieri said Cole's charges went away because of concerns about the "veracity" of the officers involved. Giovannoni and Sciarrino were listed on Cole's arrest documents.

Other pending cases against indoor pot growers could also be in jeopardy, Gualtieri said, as well as cases recently resolved through plea bargains or convictions.

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

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