Sunday, January 21, 2018
Editorials

Sheriff must combat corner-cutting culture

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has sent 15 cases to internal affairs in recent weeks from the narcotics unit. That suggests Gualtieri will hold responsible parties accountable when they are accused of breaking department rules and violating constitutional rights. But the breadth of apparent misconduct suggests there is more to find, and it is troubling that Gualtieri didn't uncover the wrongdoing. Defense lawyers and the media revealed it. The sheriff should launch a thorough review to determine if the culture of cutting legal corners that pervaded the narcotics unit is more widespread.

The allegations before internal affairs, including destroying evidence and illegal trespass, stem largely from an operation that searched for marijuana grow houses. Detectives posted a camera outside a hydroponics store in Largo and investigated the store's customers, many of whom were merely growing organic plants and vegetables. Gualtieri said he ordered the camera taken down. But some illicit grow houses had been found, and as the criminal cases against the alleged growers are prosecuted defense attorneys are uncovering a pattern of unethical if not illegal acts surrounding the operation — all of which seem to be news to Gualtieri.

For instance, three Pinellas narcotics deputies bypassed the requirement for a subpoena to access electric company billing records. Instead they relied on the willing assistance of a Progress Energy employee. Growing marijuana indoors hydroponically typically uses an inordinate amount of electricity. Detectives looked for anomalous bills for hydroponic store customers, then obtained a subpoena from the State Attorney's Office after the fact as a way to cover their tracks.

Additional allegations include detectives illegally trespassing on suspects' property to peek inside houses. Detectives may have lied to get search warrants by claiming they could smell marijuana growing outside a home's perimeter or 15 or 20 feet away — something that experts say is unlikely. One detective even dressed as a Progress Energy worker to trick a suspect into opening the front door so he could see or smell if marijuana was being grown inside. Nothing was found.

When Gualtieri learned of these activities he reassigned and demoted some detectives and a supervisor, made referrals to internal affairs and ordered mandatory legal training. Gualtieri is commendably denouncing the improper tactics. As a lawyer, he knows that criminal cases are now at risk. If detectives lied to obtain a search warrant, it would doom the prosecution by excluding any evidence found during the search.

Gualtieri, who was chief deputy before being appointed as sheriff four months ago when Jim Coats retired, should have been more aware of the culture of misconduct within the narcotics unit. How well he continues to respond to these abuses tests the sheriff's fitness for the job as he asks voters this year to elect him to a full term.

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