Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Florida Sheriff Investigates Own Narc Unit for Questionable Tactics Used to Bust Pot Growers

Marijuana grow houses should not be the department's highest priority, sheriff says

 Contributed by Sativa Galore

 CLEARWATER, FL — Newly appointed Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is cleaning up the streets — starting with narcotics detectives within his own department. The narcotics unit, which Gualtieri says has become “too loose an operation,” has been criticized for cutting corners, destroying evidence, and using questionable surveillance tactics including dressing as utility company employees to gain warrant-less access to suspects’ homes.

Since his investigation began March 1, Sheriff Gualtieri has referred 15 cases to internal affairs from his own narcotics division. Nine deputies have been investigated so far, with five disciplined, two with complaints found unfounded, and two still under investigation.

The misconduct allegations before internal affairs, including destroying evidence and illegal trespass, stem largely from an operation that searched for marijuana grow houses.  But the widespread range of apparent misconduct suggests there is more to find.

The narcotics unit first found itself under Gualtieri’s microscope at the end of February, when the Tampa Bay Times contacted him about allegations of misconduct by undercover narcotics detectives. In a formal statement given to an attorney about a pending marijuana growing case, a Pinellas detective said he wore a Progress Energy uniform as a “ruse” to  enter a homeowner’s property without a search warrant.

The incident happened in 2010, long before Gualtieri was appointed sheriff, who says marijuana grow houses should not be the department’s highest priority.

“I was appalled by it,” Gualtieri told the Times, after they showed him the transcript of the interview. The sheriff immedialty instituted a policy preventing deputies from using corporate uniforms without permission from their own supervisors and “express written permission of that corporate entity.”

But that was just the beginning. Since first learning of the narcotics unit’s use of the energy company uniforms, Gualtieri has uncovered several other allegations of “questionable” police tactics.

Gualtieri next discovered that detectives had placed a surveillance camera outside of Simply Hydroponics, a hydroponics growing supply store, which led to the investigation of the store’s customers for the past two years.  Detectives would record license plate numbers of the store’s customers, many of whom were growing organic fruits or vegetables, and then tried to build cases against them as suspected indoor marijuana farmers. Gualtieri has since ordered the camera taken down.

A week into the investigation, Gualtieri learned that three detectives improperly and routinely accessed Progress Energy billing records for years as they searched for marijuana grows, and would send bogus after-the-fact subpoena requests to the State Attorney’s office to cover their tracks.
In yet another case, a deputy erased a DVR hard drive seized in a marijuana bust because, he claimed, it might reveal the faces of undercover officers. But a local defense attorney said the tape would have shown deputies trespassing without a warrant.

There are currently 39 pending marijuana grow house cases involving the officers under investigation. Attorneys for defendants say that detectives also trespassed illegally on suspects’ property to peak inside houses, sniff around and look for tell-tale grow house window insulation.

Gualtieri has also uncovered other cases of misconduct, including a detective who sought reimbursement for a $200 payment to a snitch, but “he never paid the informant.” In another incident, a deputy back-dated a snitch payment receipt for another deputy who had failed to have the payment witnessed, as required by department policy.
So far in the investigation, one narcotics supervisor has been reassigned, while two of the detectives have been demoted  and assigned to patrol division.

About Sativa Galore

Sativa Galore is a medical student in the Boston area, and a proponent of legalization of marijuana for both medical and recreational use. Sativa contributes articles of interest from the New England area, as well as her home state of New Jersey, and volunteers to help with the tedious editing duties at The Daily Chronic.
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