The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has been using a law enforcement technique that resembles a fishing expedition. It surreptitiously trained a camera at a hydroponics supply business, turning every customer who walked through the door into a suspected marijuana grower. This kind of surveillance may be technically legal, but it is intrusive and violates the spirit of the Fourth Amendment's privacy protections. People should be allowed to pursue lawful activities without automatically provoking a police investigation.
To his credit, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has ordered the camera taken down. Gualtieri, who was only recently appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to fill the remainder of an unexpired term, says the prescription drug problem, cocaine and other drugs where public safety is at risk will be the agency's priority. Encouragingly, he also says that his agency has to be careful about focusing attention on people who are going about their business and not engaging in inherently suspicious conduct.
Simply Hydroponics is a garden shop in Largo that serves customers who want to cultivate plants of many types with water and nutrients, but no soil. Because this technique is popular with marijuana growers who tend their crops indoors so as not to be detected, the sheriff's office mounted a camera on a nearby pole to record the license plates numbers of the store's customers. For more than two years, this tactic was used to watch, identify and harass the store's customers.
As reported by St. Petersburg Times staff writer Rita Farlow, the sheriff's office would check customers' home energy bills. Hydroponic marijuana growers use a disproportionate amount of electricity. A suspect house would be visited to see if there were other telltale signs of marijuana growing, such as blacked-out windows. Farlow noted that in nearly every affidavit for a search warrant, deputies would claim that they smelled marijuana being grown inside. Experts dispute the likelihood of that except where there is a huge number of plants.
Deputies found marijuana growing in each of the 39 cases for which they obtained a search warrant, between Jan. 1. 2010, and Sept. 15, and Gualtieri says a large cache of plants and weapons were seized at many addresses. But this doesn't justify the number of innocent people who drew uncomfortable law enforcement attention just for shopping. While some Simply Hydroponic customers have turned out to be marijuana growers, another contingent are simply gardeners growing legal plants and organic food.
Co-owner Dawn Bednar aptly compared her shop to a gun shop. "Everyone who visits a gun shop isn't a murderer," Bednar said. Exactly. Imagine the political firestorm if the police posted a camera to investigate everyone who came out of a gun show, where customers can buy firearms while avoiding a background check — one way criminals get guns.
Cameras are cheap to operate compared to posting a deputy for constant surveillance. That is what makes this law enforcement approach all the more concerning. It can be used with impunity. Should every customer who walks into a drugstore where cough medicine can be used to get high also be worried that a secret police camera is recording the visit for further scrutiny? It's a recipe for driving small businesses bankrupt, and for making local residents feel constantly under watch — an anathema in a free society.