Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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 or (727) 893-8442.

Pinellas sheriff places four officers on leave over pot farm cases 03/22/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 22, 2012 10:33pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Bill Clinton coming to Miami Beach on Saturday for mayors' convention


    From our friends at the Miami Herald:

    Former President Bill Clinton gives the opening address to kick off a meeting of International Aid Groups at the InterAction Forum 2017 at the Washington Convention Center on June 20.
  2. Obama's secret struggle to punish Russia for Putin's election assault


    WASHINGTON — Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried "eyes only" instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Barack Obama shake hands at the COP21 UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris, France, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015. [Mikhail Klimentyev | Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP]
  3. GOP's challenge: Finding votes for Senate health care bill (w/video)


    WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has finally unwrapped his plan for dismantling President Barack Obama's health care law. Now comes his next challenge — persuading enough Republicans to back the measure and avert a defeat that could be shattering for President Donald Trump and the GOP.

    Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks to reporters at the Capitol after Republicans released their long-awaited bill to scuttle much of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 22, 2017. He is one of four GOP senators to say they are opposed it but are open to negotiations, which could put the measure in immediate jeopardy. [Associated Press]
  4. Trigaux: Halfway through 2017, a closer look at six drivers of the Tampa Bay economy


    We're nearly halfway through 2017 already, a perfect time to step back from the daily grind of business and ask: How's Tampa Bay's economy doing?

    Is there one theme or idea that captures the Tampa Bay brand? Not really but here's one possibility. The fun-loving annual Gasparilla "Invasion" of Tampa is captured in this photo of 
The Jose Gasparilla loaded with pirates of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla on its way this past January to the Tampa Convention Center. In the future a vibrant downtown Tampa or St. Petersburg may be the better theme. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
  5. Harmeling first woman to receive lifetime honor at Sneaker Soiree in Tampa

    Human Interest

    TAMPA — For the last quarter-century, she has combined passion and meticulousness to keep the Gasparilla Distance Classic humming and evolving. Indefatigable and detailed, Susan Harmeling braces for every race-weekend contingency.

    Susan Harmeling gives a speech after accepting an award  during the annual Sneaker Soiree, at TPepin's Hospitality Centre, Thursday, June 22, 2017.