Monday, November 20, 2017
Public safety

Sergeant suspended for erasing evidence in Simply Hydroponics case

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LARGO — A Pinellas deputy who ordered the erasure of a DVR hard drive seized in a marijuana grow house bust was suspended for 40 hours for violating agency policy, according to a report released by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Sgt. Chris Taylor, a supervisor in the narcotics division, was suspended for five days after an internal affairs investigation determined he improperly handled evidence when he ordered subordinates to erase the hard drive in December 2010.

Taylor told investigators he gave that order because the digital video recorder's hard drive showed the faces of undercover detectives and he feared those images could be made public if released to the defendant in the case.

But the attorney who filed the complaint that led to the internal affairs investigation thinks there was another reason the DVR was erased: It contained images of Pinellas narcotics detectives trespassing on his client's property, he said, which is against the law and agency policy.

"There was video on the DVR that showed narcotics detectives jumping my client's fence in order to get up to the house to try to smell for marijuana," said attorney Jerry Theophilopoulos of Tarpon Springs. "If we had that DVR, we could have moved forward with a motion to suppress to show, one, they illegally obtained evidence in this case, and more importantly, second, that (a narcotics detective) lied in his affidavit for the search warrant."

• • •

Authorities who want to search a property must present to a judge an affidavit in which they explain their probable cause — the information they have that makes them believe a crime is being committed. Theophilopoulos contends that Pinellas detectives trespassed onto his client's property to try to smell marijuana and weren't truthful in other statements in the affidavit they gave the judge.

Theophilopoulos' client, Allen Underwood of Seminole, was arrested in December 2010 after detectives executed a search warrant and found he was growing marijuana. Underwood was convicted in June of manufacturing marijuana with the intent to distribute and sentenced to probation.

Underwood was one of dozens of Pinellas County residents investigated after visiting Simply Hydroponics, a hydroponic gardening shop on Ulmerton Road. Pinellas investigators identified the store's customers by mounting a camera on a pole across the street to capture images of their vehicles.

Detectives would find their home addresses, and often checked to see if they were using an unusual amount of electricity. In most cases, including Underwood's, detectives also conducted "spot checks" at the homes to look for signs of a grow operation and to try to smell growing marijuana.

In December, the Tampa Bay Times wrote about the controversial surveillance of customers of Simply Hydroponics, including Underwood.

The report on the Sheriff's Office's internal investigation of the DVR erasure is 880 pages long. According to the report, Underwood placed four high-quality cameras outside of his home because he lived in a "high crime area." The camera images were fed to a DVR. In his sworn statement, Underwood said he twice saw detectives jumping over his fence and into his yard during the days leading up to the search warrant being served.

He said he initially thought it might have been people trying to break into his home, but as his court case progressed he identified the men as Sgt. Taylor and an undercover narcotics detective whose name is redacted from the report.

The deputies denied trespassing onto Underwood's property, making this a case of their word against Underwood's.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri acknowledged that the one item that could have settled the trespassing matter was lost when the hard drive was erased.

"We've got one person, only one person, who says there was a DVR that contained X. There's no corroborating evidence of it whatsoever and we have deputies and detectives who, when asked whether the conduct in question happened … they say it absolutely did not happen," Gualtieri said.

However, he said he was dismayed that the hard drive was erased and has reiterated to his staff that policies pertaining to evidence handling and storage must be followed.

"Taylor was absolutely wrong. The way it was handled was absolutely improper," he said.

Taylor, a 13-year veteran of the agency, served his suspension in December. He was reassigned to patrol at his request, but not because of the investigation, the Sheriff's Office said.

Theophilopoulos said he believes Taylor committed a crime when he ordered the hard drive erased and should be prosecuted. He called the internal affairs investigation "a joke."

"You have a select handful of narcotics detectives intentionally breaking the law, committing crimes, including felonies, and getting away with it," he said.

But Gualtieri said there was no proof Taylor saw anything improper on the hard drive and had the recording erased to cover it up.

The hard drive was erased weeks before Theophilopoulos sent a letter explaining the drive must be preserved because it contained evidence vital to his client's case.

Rita Farlow can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.

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