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Sarasota state attorney rules deputy's shooting of Levonia Riggins justified

TAMPA — Night after night, his Clair-Mel neighbors mourned his death and called for justice.

Some nights they marched silently through the streets where he lived. Other nights they blocked them with barriers of fire, trash and their own bodies. They hurled expletives at passing patrol cars and called for Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee to resign. Six were arrested as the nights of protests stretched into weeks.

But a state attorney's review has concluded that a Hillsborough deputy's fatal shooting of Levonia Riggins, a 22-year-old unarmed black man, was justified. Sarasota State Attorney Ed Brodsky wrote Wednesday in a letter to Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee that no charges would be filed against Deputy Caleb Johnson.

"Any reasonably cautious and prudent law enforcement officer would have perceived an imminent threat and believed that the danger was real," Brodsky wrote. "A number of key factors and actions by Riggins created a reasonable appearance of danger which ultimately resulted in this tragic outcome."

Johnson, 32, shot and killed Riggins as the agency's SWAT team served a search warrant early on the morning of Aug. 30 at Riggins' home in Clair-Mel. He is a seven-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office who spent time in the Marines. He has been on paid administrative leave, standard after deputy-involved shootings, and now faces an administrative investigation by the Sheriff's Office to determine whether he violated policies or procedures.

That investigation will be reviewed by the agency's shooting review board, which consists of staffers and community members, HCSO spokesman Larry McKinnon said in a statement.

"The Sheriff's Office has a longstanding policy of having civilian members of the community on the board to ensure transparency; and to ensure that input from the community is heard," the statement said.

Brodsky's letter noted that undercover deputies had long been investigating Riggins for dealing drugs. Before deputies obtained the search warrant, they bought marijuana from him three times, once at Riggins' home, according to the letter.

Before conducting the search, the deputies used a "risk assessment instrument," which looked at Riggins' criminal history. He had been arrested 28 times since 2007, and several cases involved firearms. Once, in a juvenile facility, he was arrested for battery on a staff member. Riggins, therefore, was considered a high risk.

When they arrived to serve the warrant, he was in bed. The SWAT team announced its presence and told those inside to come out. Four people, including a small child, did. Riggins ignored commands over a 10-minute period, the letter stated.

Johnson and two other deputies moved to the rear of the house, outside Riggins' bedroom window, which was covered by blinds. They broke the window and saw him face down on a bed.

As the deputies yelled for Riggins to show his hands, he moved between the bed and the wall, the letter stated.

Riggins stood up suddenly and reached with both hands toward his waistband, the letter stated. His movements were "quick and aggressive," the letter said. That's when Johnson fired.

"Although no firearm was recovered from Riggins, Deputy Johnson reasonably believed as a reasonably cautious and prudent law enforcement officer that Riggins posed an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm," the letter said. It was signed by Brodsky and his chief assistant, Lon Arend.

Gov. Rick Scott assigned Brodsky to review the case after Hills­borough State Attorney Mark Ober recused himself, citing personal relationships with Johnson's family. Ober lost his bid for re-election Tuesday.

Johnson is the nephew of former Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson.

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.

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