Third Pinellas County narcotics deputy resigns in grow house investigation

Published Jun. 23, 2012

LARGO — The three narcotics deputies who pursued marijuana growers by monitoring a Largo hydroponics store have now all left the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, snared by allegations of trespassing and other misconduct.

Paul Giovannoni, 31, resigned Friday after reading evidence against him collected by the Internal Affairs Division, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.

Detective Michael Sciarrino and Sgt. Christopher Taylor, the other members of the grow house team, resigned earlier this week.

Gualtieri declined to provide details of the allegations, because one narcotics deputy and two patrol deputies still face possible disciplinary action in related cases. Those deputies are due to go before an administrative review board Tuesday, then Gualtieri will decide on any punishments.

Sciarrino, Taylor and Giovannoni arrested dozens of customers of the store, where indoor pot growers sometimes bought supplies. A surveillance camera captured customers' auto tag numbers, then deputies secured search warrants and raided houses.

In almost all the warrants, detectives said they could smell growing marijuana from public sidewalks or neighbors' yards. Defense lawyers suspected the detectives were actually trespassing to get up close to houses.

A fourth narcotics detective, Kyle Alston, sometimes accompanied the other three on evidence-gathering expeditions. In February, Tarpon Springs attorney Newt Hudson asked Alston under oath whether he ever saw his colleagues "jump fences,'' short-hand for trespassing.

Alston refused to answer.

When the Tampa Bay Times reported that refusal, Gualtieri put all four deputies on indefinite leave and began investigating. Prosecutors dropped 18 pending cases against defendants accused of growing pot in which the deputies' testimony was crucial.

Any discipline against Alston will be decided next week.

Giovannoni, a 7-year veteran, could not be reached for comment. He made news earlier this year when the Times revealed he had worn a Progress Energy shirt and hat to gain access to property.

That technique did not break the law, Gualtieri reiterated Friday, but could jeopardize any resulting criminal cases. Courts have thrown out evidence when police go incognito to entice people to open their doors.

Largo attorney John Trevena got wind of the uniform scheme before it became public and questioned Giovannoni about it under oath in February.

Giovannoni repeatedly denied wearing the uniform, then changed his testimony at the end of the questioning.

Under the Florida Retirement System, deputies can lose pensions only if convicted of felonies related to their jobs. Whether they resign or are fired does not affect that determination.

Gualtieri declined to comment on whether he will seek criminal charges in the current cases.