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Judge rules Pinellas detective, prosecutors lied in child porn case. Defendant could go free.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he would arrest the former detective if he could. A judge threw out the evidence in the case because officials made “false statements” to the court.
James Rybicki, 63, faces charges of lewd and lascivious molestation and possession of child pornography. But he could go free after a judge found that Pinellas sheriff’s detectives and Pinellas-Pasco prosecutors lied to obtain a search warrant in his case. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
James Rybicki, 63, faces charges of lewd and lascivious molestation and possession of child pornography. But he could go free after a judge found that Pinellas sheriff’s detectives and Pinellas-Pasco prosecutors lied to obtain a search warrant in his case. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
Published Nov. 21
Updated Nov. 22

A 63-year-old man facing charges of lewd and lascivious molestation and possession of child pornography could go free after a judge found that Pinellas sheriff’s detectives and Pinellas-Pasco prosecutors lied to obtain a search warrant in the case.

The Tampa Bay Times obtained the Nov. 1 order written by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge William Burgess III in which he found law enforcement officials engaged in a “ruse” to obtain a search warrant for one crime that they used to obtain evidence to prosecute other crimes.

“Had it not contained false statements and not omitted certain material facts, no reasonably prudent judge or magistrate would have signed the warrant,” the judge wrote.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri found the allegations raised in the judge’s order so egregious, he said he would arrest the detective — except he no longer works at the Sheriff’s Office, and no longer lives in Florida.

“I would arrest him and put him in jail on a perjury charge,” Gualtieri said.

Former Pinellas detective Michael Alvarez is now a now a patrol officer with the Ann Arbor Police Department in Michigan. He could not be reached for comment.

The judge concluded that “police and prosecution knowingly and intentionally … made false statements." As a result of the judge’s ruling, "all charges against the Defendant will have to be dismissed.”

James Rybicki was arrested in 2016 following a search of his home. Detectives said they found videos he recorded that showed him inappropriately touching a child.

Yet Burgess granted a motion by Rybicki’s attorney to have the video, and all other evidence collected against him via the search warrant, thrown out — even though the judge wrote Rybicki “is morally unworthy of this windfall exoneration.”

Gualtieri said Alvarez left the Sheriff’s Office in May 2017 and that June took a job at the Ann Arbor Police Department. Because Alvarez lives outside of the sheriff’s jurisdiction, Gualtieri said all he can do is refer the case to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office. It will be up to prosecutors to decide whether to file charges and issue an arrest warrant.

But Gualtieri said he did call Ann Arbor’s deputy police chief on Thursday morning and told him about the judge’s ruling regarding Alvarez’s conduct. Police officials there put him on paid leave that same day.

“Based on alleged conduct reported prior to joining the Ann Arbor Police Department, Officer Michael Alvarez has been placed on paid administrative leave, pending the results of an internal investigation,” Ann Arbor police said in a statement.

Executive Assistant State Attorney Kendall Davidson, who worked on the case and oversees a child abuse prosecution unit, declined to comment when asked whether Alvarez committed perjury. He said he needed to read the four lengthy sworn statements Alvarez made in the case.

Davidson could not identify all the prosecutors who worked on the case, but said he does not believe they did anything wrong.

Rybicki’s defense attorney, Lucas Fleming, called the judge’s decision “extraordinary” and rare. The attorney said he came across discrepancies in the evidence while deposing Alvarez. Fleming said the detective opened up to him about the scheme. That candor shocked Fleming.

“You can’t serve a search warrant on a ruse for something else,” he said.

Burgess specifically criticized law enforcement officials for misleading a judge to obtain a search warrant that was used to examine Rybicki’s home on Dec. 13, 2016.

Jail records show he was arrested that same day. It was not clear from the judge’s order whether the search warrant was executed at a Largo or Seminole address for Rybicki.

The investigation and warrant stems from allegations made three years before the 2016 arrest. A 13-year-old girl and her grandmother told detectives that, when the child was about 10, that Rybicki photographed her while she was trying on bathing suits in the master bedroom of his home. The child said he left the camera in the room and she tried to delete the photos, but was unsure that she succeeded. Detectives believed he’d taken similar photos of other children, too.

The incident was reminiscent of Rybicki’s 2000 arrest on three felonies: one count of lewd and lascivious conduct and two counts of possession of child pornography. Detectives referenced that case in their 2016 search warrant application. The charges in that case were later reduced to three misdemeanor charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail.

During the 2016 investigation, detectives determined that the photographs he collected of the 13-year-old girl were “child erotica,” the judge wrote, not illegal child pornography. So those officials determined that they could not arrest him on child pornography charges.

Instead, the judge said prosecutors and detectives came up with a “game plan” of securing a search warrant to investigate an allegation of false imprisonment — but had no intention of filing that charge.

The warrant was a way for detectives to enter Rybicki’s house, where they believed they would find evidence to support child pornography charges, the judge wrote.

That’s what happened, the judge wrote.

“The request for a search warrant to look for evidence of false imprisonment was simply a ruse to allow the police to enter Rybicki’s residence to look for evidence of other crimes for which there was no probably cause to search,” Burgess wrote.

“This failure to candidly advise the judge of all the material facts deprive the judge of the opportunity to exercise meaningful supervision … this failure permeated and tainted the entire warrant application process … and requires that all of the evidence collected in the search of the Defendant’s home be suppressed.”

Thus the search violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure.

The most concerning part to Gualtieri was that Alvarez wrote in the search warrant application that he had asked the girl’s grandmother if she had consented to her granddaughter going to Rybicki’s house, a key question for a false imprisonment charge.

But the grandmother later testified that she had never spoken to Alvarez about that. And Alvarez later said during a deposition that the conversation hadn’t happened, either, and that he had “tried to use a little common sense on this one.”

“That’s not how you do things,” the sheriff said. “It’s crazy … It’s a complete anomaly, and there’s simply no reason or excuse for it."

The sheriff, who is also a lawyer, said the only feasible route he sees is for Pinellas prosecutors to drop the case.

“Unfortunately, in order for there to be consequences, there’s going to have to be another victim,” Gualtieri said.

Davidson said he disagrees with the order. He said his office had not ruled out charging Rybicki with false imprisonment.

“We weren’t real happy with the strength of the case, but looking at Mr. Rybicki and his history, we had reason to believe there was probably criminal activity going on,” he said. “We believed we had probable cause, and I still believe we had probable case.”

Davidson said prosecutors may try to salvage the case, “but as the judge stated, it’s likely not going to go forward.” His office will not appeal, he said, because they don’t believe it will be successful.

“From the State Attorney’s Office, we find this is a horrible result," he said. “We do the best we can, and the court ultimately gets to make the decision on the motion to suppress.

“The impact is that people around him aren’t safe. Kids around him aren’t safe.”

Rybicki faces one count each of video voyeurism, possession of child pornography, promoting a sexual performance by a child, two counts of lewd and lascivious molestation and three weapons charges as a result of the search warrant, court records show.

A Friday hearing is set in this case. Rybicki has been free on bail since his arrest.

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