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Ruling on steamy text messages helps ex-teacher Stephanie Ragusa

TAMPA — Steamy text messages between a former teacher and two middle school students were illegally obtained by law enforcement officers, a judge ruled Thursday.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe ruled the records are not admissible as evidence in the court case against Stephanie Ragusa, the former Davidsen Middle School teacher accused of having sex with two students.

Prosecutor Rita Peters said her office is evaluating whether to appeal.

Ragusa's attorney, Robert Herce, described the order as "a major victory," one he plans to use as a basis to completely dismiss one of the sex cases against her.

"But for the unlawfully obtained text messages," Herce said, "they wouldn't have identified the second victim."

Ragusa, 30, has been in jail since April 2008, awaiting trial.

Herce argued that law enforcement officers found the text messages without a search warrant, in violation of constitutional law.

Police were investigating allegations regarding a 14-year-old male student when they discovered Ragusa's text messages with a second boy, 16, resulting in a second sex case being brought against her.

According to the judge's written order, sheriff's detectives arranged for the 14-year-old to text Ragusa and record a phone call with her — evidence used the next day to arrest Ragusa.

Four days later, Hillsborough sheriff's Detective Travis Valles asked for a court order compelling Sprint to release all of her phone, e-mail and text messages.

That's when detectives identified the second boy.

Though state attorneys argued the text messages would have been uncovered in the course of the investigation anyway, Tharpe wrote that the prosecution provided no evidence supporting that justification.

If the prosecution decides to appeal, state attorneys will have to ask before a judge has a chance to decide whether, at Herce's request, to dismiss the case involving the 16-year-old.

Additionally, Herce hopes to ask the court to release Ragusa on bail.

Tharpe said he would not consider letting her go without her attorney submitting his request in writing.

"File a motion," he said bluntly.

Ragusa kept a subtle smile on her face as she appeared before the court in French braids and her jail-issued orange suit.

Ruling on steamy text messages helps ex-teacher Stephanie Ragusa 02/04/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 4, 2010 11:15pm]
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