Pasco sheriff discontinues controversial intelligence program, court documents say

The sheriff’s office phased out its practice of focusing on people deemed likely to commit crimes in the future, according to documents in a lawsuit.
Tammy Heilman, Sheila Smith, Rio Wojtecki, Lorenzo Gary and Dalanea Taylor were among those targeted by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office under its intelligence program.
Tammy Heilman, Sheila Smith, Rio Wojtecki, Lorenzo Gary and Dalanea Taylor were among those targeted by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office under its intelligence program. [ Douglas R. Clifford ]
Published March 23, 2023|Updated March 25, 2023

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office has stopped keeping a list of people deemed likely to commit future crimes and repeatedly sending deputies to their homes, according to documents filed March 14 in a federal lawsuit.

Attorneys for the sheriff’s office noted in a court paper that in 2021 and 2022 the agency phased out what was referred to as the “prolific offender designation process or prolific offender checks.” Instead, the sheriff’s office now says it focuses on people reasonably suspected to have committed a particular crime under investigation, a distinct designation it refers to as “focused offenders.”

The document cited changing community needs, “in particular an epidemic of drug activity,” as the reason. Those deemed “focused offenders” are not subject to the same random checks by deputies that had become the subject of controversy and the federal lawsuit.

The agency’s practice of targeting people deemed at risk of committing crimes was the subject of a 2020 Tampa Bay Times investigation, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco.

The Times found that the sheriff’s office used a computer algorithm to build the list of people, who were then subject to monitoring and harassment by deputies. Some targets were minors. Experts compared the tactics to child abuse, mafia harassment and authoritarian surveillance.

The sheriff’s office defended the program, claiming it helped reduce property crimes. The Times found other nearby police jurisdictions had seen a similar decline in property crimes without using the same tactics.

The federal government opened two investigations into the sheriff’s office after the Times reported on the practice. In 2021, four Pasco County residents who’d been targeted in the program filed a federal lawsuit against the sheriff’s office, alleging violations of their constitutional rights.

Britney Morris, a spokesperson for the agency, noted in a statement that judges previously have ruled in favor of the sheriff’s office in several other cases filed against them by former deputies. One case, brought by a former employee who resigned, had an appeal dismissed this week, she said, adding that the agency was “now the prevailing party in all cases.”

She added that “over the several years long timespan that these lawsuits have been filed, it is natural for any law enforcement agency to adapt practices to continue to best serve our community.” Morris said the sheriff’s office isn’t going to litigate the current lawsuit in the media.

Ari Bargil, an attorney with the Institute of Justice, a public interest law firm that represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit over the intelligence program, expressed skepticism that the sheriff’s office has truly abandoned the practice of trying to identify people it considers future criminals.

Bargil said the sheriff’s office “has not acknowledged any wrongdoing and continues to aggressively defend its campaign of harassment against residents as constitutionally legitimate.” He added that sheriff’s officials have testified that they could revert back to the practice if the agency decides it wants to do so.

“That is not encouraging,” he said.

The lawsuit remains ongoing. A judge could rule on the case soon.

In the document filed March 14, lawyers for the plaintiffs say the case has produced “a significant factual record that testifies to a sustained campaign of harassment” against the plaintiffs and others. They were targeted based on what the lawyers call a “dystopian ‘intelligence-led policing’ philosophy.”

In a six-year period, the document states, the sheriff’s office conducted more than 13,000 “prolific offender checks” without warrants or evidence of criminal activity. Body camera footage showed deputies interrogating the plaintiffs and snooping around their properties, and subjecting them to citations and arrests, the document states.

The sheriff’s office has always denied systematically harassing people, saying in court filings that their internal manuals and policies did not dictate how deputies should conduct themselves when visiting targets at home.

The Times investigation found that the sheriff’s office would send deputies to find and interrogate anyone whose name appeared on the list of those the agency considered likely to break the law. Deputies would sometimes arrive in the middle of the night, writing tickets for any violation, no matter how small — such as missing mailbox numbers or overgrown grass — and making arrests for any reason.

One former deputy described a directive to “make their lives miserable until they move or sue.”

The Times also investigated another sheriff’s office program that used data from the local school district and the state Department of Children and Families to assemble a list of children deemed likely to become criminals. Factors that contributed to inclusion on the list included student grades and abuse histories.

The U.S. Department of Education later opened an investigation into the school district’s sharing of data, after which the sheriff’s office said deputies would no longer have access to student data.