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Pinellas prosecutors drop charges in tainted child porn case

The filings come after a judge issued a ruling this month saying that prosecutors and a Pinellas County Sheriff’s detective engaged in a “ruse” to get a warrant.
James Rybicki, 63, faces charges of lewd and lascivious molestation and possession of child pornography. But the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office dropped the charges after a judge found that Pinellas sheriff’s detectives and Pinellas-Pasco prosecutors lied to obtain a search warrant in his case.
James Rybicki, 63, faces charges of lewd and lascivious molestation and possession of child pornography. But the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office dropped the charges 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. 27, 2019
Updated Nov. 27, 2019

The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office dropped child pornography and molestation charges against a man whose home was searched based on false statements by law enforcement.

Executive Assistant State Attorney Kendall Davidson filed documents Tuesday afternoon saying his office would no longer pursue the following charges against James Rybicki: two counts of lewd and lascivious molestation; and one count each of video voyeurism, possession of child pornography and promoting a sexual performance by a child.

“The system worked in this case,” said Rybicki’s attorney, Lucas Fleming. “We can look at this and say the Fourth Amendment is alive and well in Pinellas County.”

RELATED: Why haven’t Pinellas prosecutors dropped tainted child porn case, judge asks

The filings come after a judge issued a ruling this month saying that prosecutors and a Pinellas County Sheriff’s detective engaged in a “ruse” to get a warrant to search Rybicki’s home. They pretended to pursue one crime — false imprisonment — to get into the home and look for evidence of other crimes, the judge said, violating Rybicki’s constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

“Had it not contained false statements and not omitted certain material facts, no reasonably prudent judge or magistrate would have signed the warrant,” Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge William Burgess III wrote, referencing the investigators’ warrant application.

Pinellas Pasco Circuit Court Judge William H. Burgess III, listens in court Friday, November 22, 2019, during a hearing for defendant James Rybicki, 63. Rybicki was not in court, Friday.
Pinellas Pasco Circuit Court Judge William H. Burgess III, listens in court Friday, November 22, 2019, during a hearing for defendant James Rybicki, 63. Rybicki was not in court, Friday. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]

Detectives did find child pornography and evidence that Rybicki, 63, molested a girl in his home, officers wrote in arrest reports. But now that the charges are dropped, Rybicki is free from further prosecution, including potential jail or prison time.

Davidson said in an interview Wednesday that his office had been trying to salvage the two molestation charges, which were in part based on victim testimony. The remaining charges came from evidence found during the illegal search and were therefore gutted by the judge’s ruling.

The victim had limited memory of the alleged contact, which happened several years ago, Davidson said, and her family didn’t want her to testify in court. Without corroborating evidence from the search, “we didn’t have enough to go forward,” Davidson said.

Davidson stands by the actions of his prosecutors and said he didn’t know why the judge rebuked them in his order. The blame falls on the detective, he said, who they had no reason not to believe based on what he wrote in the warrant application.

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“It was beyond careless," Davidson said of the detective’s actions. “We’re not satisfied with the result either.”

The detective, Michael Alvarez, could not be reached for comment. Alvarez left the agency two years ago and currently works for the Ann Arbor Police Department in Michigan. Officials there said he is on paid administrative leave while they conduct an internal investigation.

A third prosecutor, with whom Alvarez said he worked to obtain the search warrant, also couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday. That attorney, Kate Alexander, now works for the U.S. Department of Justice.

Fleming said Wednesday his client had been living with an ankle monitor as part of his conditions of release on bail three years ago. It was removed this week, he said, just in time for Thanksgiving.

The attorney acknowledged there may be concerns about Rybicki walking free, based on the accusations he was facing. But, he said, the focus should stay on law enforcement’s blunders.

“Had they made the right decision not to execute the search warrant, we wouldn’t be having this conversation," Fleming said.

Rybicki, he said, “is a person who has the same civil liberties we all have."