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A Times Editorial

Police debacle earns courageous rebuke

Something is fundamentally wrong with the FBI and Tampa police when their officers cannot keep an informant on the public payroll from reportedly terrorizing others and breaking the law himself.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Daniel H. Sleet this week largely dismissed a major gang racketeering case because of shocking misconduct ignored by law enforcement agencies. The informant, recorded on a government-issued cell phone, schemed to steal property and beat up his friends. While his police handlers listened in and looked the other way, he even threatened to beat the mother of his child so badly "that her brain will seep from her ears."

Sleet dismissed charges against 23 defendants arrested in 2006 during a raid on what local and federal authorities characterized as a meeting in Tampa of the statewide leadership of the Latin Kings gang. At the time, authorities hailed the arrests as a turning point in the crackdown on increasingly organized and violent gang activity, especially in Central Florida. But Sleet found the gang was dormant until the police informant brought it back to life — largely by threatening physical beatings to any member who refused to reunite.

Not only was the gang's organization contrived, but the judge found that the informant took on a side business of breaking the law himself with the use of public money and with a wink and a nod from his law enforcement handlers. Luis "Danny" Agosto was given a break on burglary and theft charges in exchange for ratting out gun and drug activity among his fellow Latin Kings. The FBI provided him with a cell phone and an apartment, which were monitored, and agreed to pay him $2,400 a month in expenses. Agosto also testified the FBI was to pay him a $100,000 bonus at the end of the case. But once on the payroll, the judge found that Agosto "quickly ventured back into his previous life of crime."

He used the phone to issue threats of bodily harm to gang members who avoided meetings. He fenced stolen motorcycles. He used his cachet with Tampa police to avoid arrest and drive illegally. "Despite these crimes," the judge wrote, "the FBI and local law enforcement inexplicably continued to use" Agosto. His threats to beat the mother of his child were too much for the FBI, but not the Tampa Police Department, which kept Agosto as an informant. In August 2006, a Latin King member was beaten in Agosto's apartment. Though police knew the beating would happen, and had audio surveillance at the time, "they did nothing to intervene in this illegal act," the judge ruled.

Florida law gives police and informants some latitude in reeling in suspects. The test, the judge said, is whether the methods offend "one's sense of justice." In this case, Agosto was an "out of control convicted felon" with a violent past who was "left to his own devices" by absentee police who chose to look the other way. The FBI failed to monitor weeks of calls and continues to withhold documents in the case. Throwing out the charges is an extreme sanction, the judge wrote, adding, "however, an extreme sanction is warranted to punish extreme conduct."

Sleet was courageous to stand on the principle of due process. It is too easy for law enforcement and the public to be swept away by the emotion of combatting gangs. The handling of Agosto was unprofessional and irresponsible, and it is fortunate that the judiciary acted as a backstop to balance public safety with civil rights. The FBI and Tampa police need to assure the public that this kind of disturbing law enforcement debacle will not happen again.

Police debacle earns courageous rebuke 04/09/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 11, 2008 6:58pm]
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