Saturday, May 26, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: Detective's fight needs independent review

A homicide detective for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office runs into the back of a car on Interstate 4. He gets into a fight with one of the car's passengers, points his gun at him and flashes his badge. A sheriff's deputy who arrives asks a bystander to delete a cellphone video of the confrontation. The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office charges the detective with misdemeanor battery instead of a more serious felony. On Tuesday, prosecutors offer a pretrial intervention program for the now retired detective that lets him avoid jail time and a criminal record — all without informing the victim.

There are legitimate questions about whether Thomas Pettis was treated differently by his former colleagues at the Sheriff's Office and Hillsborough prosecutors. Then add that Pettis helped investigate 28 pending cases, including several high-profile murder cases where he could be called as a witness. There is more than enough smoke here to require an independent investigation of how the Sheriff's Office investigated one of its own and how the State Attorney's Office handled the case.

The Tampa Bay Times' Peter Jamison reported on Sunday that Sebring teacher Evan Rees and his family were driving on Interstate 4 in February when Pettis hit Rees' car from behind. The men pulled over and began fighting, but their accounts differ from there. They agree Pettis pulled a gun on Rees and flashed his badge. Rees, his family and several bystanders say Pettis threatened to kill him. Pettis said he felt threatened and pulled his gun in self-defense. He said he identified himself as a police officer and holstered his gun when the threat was over. Pettis' family and another bystander back his version of events. After the fight escalated, Pettis said, he punched Rees while trying to protect his adult daughter.

Hillsborough deputies did not arrest Pettis at the scene. They punted the case to the State Attorney's Office. After reviewing the evidence with several senior lawyers, prosecutors charged Pettis with battery, a misdemeanor. Pettis has agreed to misdemeanor intervention and will have to perform community service to avoid a criminal record. Pettis retired in March and avoided an internal investigation by the Sheriff's Office.

It is not unusual for deputies to ask prosecutors to decide how to charge people involved in self-defense cases. But deputies went too far when they asked a teenage girl who videotaped some of the incident on her cellphone to send them the video and asked her parents to delete it. It also is inconsistent that state law requires the consent of the victim for pretrial intervention for misdemeanor and low-level felony cases, yet Hillsborough County's misdemeanor intervention program does not even require the victim to be notified, much less consent.

The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office and the State Attorney's Office defend their handling of this case. There are too many conflicts of interest here and too many red flags for theirs to be the final word. An outside investigation would offer residents an independent assessment on whether a homicide detective received special treatment from his former employer and from prosecutors who may still need his help winning pending cases.

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