Florida sheriffs group supports DeSantis in ousted Tampa prosecutor’s lawsuit

The Florida Sheriffs Association filed a legal brief saying the governor was right to remove Hillsborough’s state attorney.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announces the suspension of Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren during a press conference on Thursday, Aug 4, 2022, at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office administration building in Tampa.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announces the suspension of Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren during a press conference on Thursday, Aug 4, 2022, at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office administration building in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sept. 7, 2022|Updated Sept. 7, 2022

An organization representing Florida’s 67 county sheriffs filed a legal brief late Tuesday supporting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ suspension of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren.

The Florida Sheriffs Association asked a judge’s permission to submit a friend of the court brief supporting DeSantis. The accompanying 25-page court paper argues that the governor was right to remove Warren from office for what the governor characterized as Warren’s refusal to enforce certain laws.

The brief carries the names of 48 current and former law enforcement officials who it says support the Sheriffs Association’s arguments. They include 11 of Florida’s 20 state attorneys, among them Bruce Bartlett, the top prosecutor for Pinellas and Pasco counties; former Attorneys General Pam Bondi and Bill McCollum; and Maria Chapa Lopez, the former U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida.

The governor suspended Warren on Aug. 4, citing statements he’d signed pledging not to prosecute people who seek or provide abortions in violation of state laws or cases relating to transgender health care. The governor’s order also referenced a policy Warren enacted in his office, which said prosecutors should avoid pursuing certain low-level crimes like driving with a suspended license, panhandling, trespassing and prostitution.

The Sheriffs Association notes that the law gives prosecutors discretion to decide whether to bring charges against a person. But their brief stresses that such decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis and not as blanket policies against certain laws.

“In the present case, Warren was not removed for exercising his prosecutorial discretion,” wrote Robert Wayne Evans, an attorney for the Sheriffs Association. “Rather he established policies indicating that his office would not prosecute certain classes of crime or that there would be a presumption of non-prosecution for a variety of offenses, including charges arising from pedestrian and bicycle stops. These proclamations detrimentally impact a sheriff’s ability to effectively safeguard the public.”

The brief argues that the nonprosecution policy “encourages lawlessness.” If deputies quit making bicycle and pedestrian stops, it states, “drug dealers will be inclined to use these means to carry out their trade.” The policy “incentivizes criminals to explore methods that will escape the attention of law enforcement officers because the state attorney has announced that these cases will never be charged.”

Warren, a Democrat, has called his suspension a political stunt by the Republican governor. He filed the federal lawsuit two weeks after his ouster, arguing that he had engaged in protected free speech. He wants his job back.

The case has already seen several briefs from groups supporting Warren. His supporters include legal scholars, former Florida Supreme Court justices, a former solicitor general and members of the commission that crafted the Florida Constitution’s provision for suspensions.

Lawyers for DeSantis claim the governor acted within his authority to remove Warren. They have asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit. The Sheriffs Association is the first group to submit a brief favoring DeSantis.

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Almost immediately after the brief was filed Tuesday evening, Warren issued a news release criticizing several Florida sheriffs. They included Hillsborough and Pinellas county Sheriffs Chad Chronister and Bob Gualtieri, both members of the Florida Sheriffs Association.

The release pointed to Chronister’s decision not to enforce eviction orders in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also referenced a 2020 news article that quoted Gualtieri saying he was not inclined to issue ordinance violations for Pinellas County’s mask mandate.

“These examples highlight the hypocrisy of the Florida Sheriffs Association making the purely political move of joining with DeSantis on his anti-democratic effort to suspend Warren,” the release stated.

A federal judge is set to hear arguments in the lawsuit Sept. 19.