It took prodding by a group of defense attorneys and regular news reports on the rogue actions of the narcotics unit, but Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is taking the needed steps to restore public confidence in his office. He is pursuing a criminal inquiry of four former detectives, three of whom resigned in the wake of an internal affairs investigation and one who was fired after all were accused of trespassing to obtain evidence of indoor marijuana growing. Gualtieri is serious about cleaning house and deserves credit for it.
Allegations of extralegal activities of narcotics unit detectives have been in the news for months. The scrutiny was sparked by a group of defense attorneys representing people accused of growing marijuana indoors who started questioning the Sheriff's Office's tactics. For nearly two years members of the narcotics unit had been identifying customers who patronized a Largo hydroponics store and then checking their electric bills to see who might be using an inordinate amount of electricity, a potential sign of a grow house. It was a proverbial fishing expedition that Gualtieri says he shut down after learning of it.
But it is how detectives obtained search warrants for the houses they suspected that led to numerous resignations and firings and possible future criminal charges. Detectives almost always claimed they could smell marijuana from sidewalks or a neighbor's yard, an unlikely prospect at such long distances. Defense attorneys suspected that deputies illegally entered the property to see for themselves through windows or to smell close up. Eventually one detective admitted that in 2009 deputies broke down a fence to enter a suspect's yard.
This is just part of a series of allegations against narcotics division personnel that include stealing, lying, misleading assistant state attorneys, and dressing up as a utility worker to gain access to a suspect's property. Prosecutors have had to drop 18 pending cases, with more reviews to come.
The alleged misconduct took place before Gualtieri was appointed sheriff last fall after Jim Coats retired. But Gualtieri had been Coats' chief deputy, and it should not have taken defense lawyers and the media to bring the problems to his attention. Still, the sheriff has made a series of smart moves to clean up the narcotics division, referring cases to internal affairs, and suspending, transferring and firing officers. Gualtieri also made changes in internal affairs that seem to have led to a more thorough investigation of the unit, including interviews with 93 officers under oath. The detectives resigned after reviewing the internal affairs investigation records.
By launching a criminal investigation, Gualtieri is sending a signal to his department and the community that there will be no double standards, and criminals will be pursued even if they wear a badge.