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A Times Editorial

When police investigations cross the line

When a Pinellas County sheriff's detective dressed up as a Progress Energy worker as a "ruse" to get a homeowner he suspected of growing marijuana to open his door, the detective should have known it was wrong. And when Pinellas deputies tried to find home-based marijuana operations by putting a camera outside a hydroponics store and investigating customers, red flags should have gone up. Both incidents occurred because some in the sheriff's office don't seem to understand when a novel investigative technique crosses into a violation of the public trust.

It doesn't take a constitutional scholar to understand what is wrong with a detective dressing as a civilian utility worker to trick a homeowner into opening the door. If the deputy ends up seeing or smelling marijuana, there is a good chance that any resulting arrest would be irreparably tainted by the questionable way the evidence was obtained. As Sheriff Bob Gualtieri notes, the evidence probably wouldn't survive a constitutional challenge. "And shouldn't," he says.

Gualtieri says he only found out about the incident when Tampa Bay Times staff writer Curtis Krueger called him about the deposition of Detective Paul Giovannoni, who pretended to be the Progress Energy worker. Gualtieri says it was a one-time deception that occurred in May 2010, well before he was appointed as sheriff last year to fill an unexpired term. Apparently there weren't more occurrences because Progress Energy found out that a company shirt and hat had been misused and demanded the clothes back.

When law enforcement uses the tactic of impersonating a corporate worker, it jeopardizes that business' relationship with its customers. And you can imagine the reaction from law enforcement when someone puts on a uniform and pretends to be a police officer — that's illegal. In the Giovannoni case, the homeowner ushered the fake utility worker to his electricity meter to complain about service, with the deputy caught in his own ruse. But that homeowner was denied the right to decide whether to open his door to a sheriff's deputy or invite him onto the property. He didn't know he was dealing with one.

Reassuringly, Gualtieri has not put up a defensive shield. He acknowledges that the dress-up tactic was wrong, just as he ended the camera surveillance on the Simply Hydroponics shop in Largo once he became aware of it. He says these operations don't reflect his priorities: the abuse of prescription drugs, cocaine and other drugs where public safety is at greater risk.

Gualtieri has implemented a new policy that bars deputies from wearing a corporate uniform without the express written permission of the corporation. New personnel and policies also are in place. Giovannoni's supervisor has been reassigned to patrol, and the captain in charge has retired. The sheriff has referred nine people in the narcotics unit to internal affairs for a variety of personnel issues. And Gualtieri has ordered mandatory legal training for the narcotics unit and any other deputy who deals with issues that touch on constitutional rights.

Gualtieri seems to understand the proper balance between aggressive police work and resorting to illegal or unethical tactics, but his responsibility is to inculcate that understanding in everyone else. It isn't at all clear that everyone under his command knows the difference.

When police investigations cross the line 03/02/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 2, 2012 6:33pm]

    

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