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'Scent of Justice' lawyers ask feds to investigate Pinellas sheriff's pot cases

LARGO — Five defense lawyers are seeking a federal civil rights investigation of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office over allegations that narcotics detectives have trespassed and lied to gather evidence against drug suspects.

The lawyers represent clients arrested for growing marijuana inside their homes. Prosecutors recently dropped charges in a number of those cases due to the questions over the detectives' actions.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced last week that he has put four former detectives on leave over what he called issues of veracity, pending a full internal affairs investigation into their methods.

But in the letter sent Thursday to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, the lawyers say they "have lost confidence in the PCSO's ability to conduct a full and fair investigation … and call upon the Department of Justice to do so.''

Gualtieri said he is determined to root out any wrongdoing and will take appropriate action if any discipline is warranted.

He said the letter "is political,'' timed to influence his election campaign against former sheriff Everett Rice.

"Four of the six people who signed that letter are Everett Rice supporters,'' Gualtieri said. "We are conducting a thorough investigation and it will be transparent and available to everybody to review at the end of all this.

"The fair thing for them to do is give me a chance to ferret this out and get to the bottom of things. At that point it's their prerogative to make this call.''

The letter is signed by five lawyers and a private investigator they hired who call themselves the "Scent of Justice Gang'' in mocking reference to detectives' claims that they could smell marijuana growing inside defendants' homes from outside the property line. They have previously denied that their concerns are politically motivated.

The lawyers are Bjorn Brunvand, Douglas de Vlaming, Newt Hudson, Jerry Theophilopoulos and John Trevena. The investigator is Michael Peasley, who also is a former narcotics detective for the sheriff.

The group listed specific areas they want federal authorities to investigate:

• The erasure of digital recording images seized from a marijuana grower's house. The suspect contended that the images, recorded from outside surveillance cameras, would have shown that detectives had illegally trespassed on his property weeks before his arrest. The sheriff conducted an internal investigation and said the tape was erased to protect the identity of officers who came in later with a search warrant. Sgt. Chris Taylor was disciplined for the erasure in December, but Gualtieri did not determine that Taylor had trespassed or had ordered the erasure to cover any wrongdoing.

• Whether Taylor and others physically abused a suspect during an arrest at the WingHouse on Ulmerton Road.

• Whether a narcotics investigation involving the daughter of an internal affairs supervisor was covered up. Gualtieri said recently that his internal affairs division looked into that charge about two years ago and did not find any wrongdoing by the supervisor.

• Whether detectives stole any money.

Taylor, one of the officers removed from duty, declined to comment. A spokesman for the Justice Department said he could not confirm receipt of the letter.

Meanwhile Beverly Andringa, executive assistant state attorney, said the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office has now dropped charges in eight cases involving certain narcotics detectives, where their testimony would be a key element to the prosecution. Prosecutors also decided not to pursue charges against three other suspects, she said.

Staff Writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report. Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at (727) 893-8442 or at nohlgren@tampabay.com.

'Scent of Justice' lawyers ask feds to investigate Pinellas sheriff's pot cases 03/29/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 30, 2012 12:32am]

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