Lawsuit: Pasco intelligence program violated citizens’ rights
This story is part of a larger series by Neil Bedi and Kathleen McGrory, with support from the Fund for Journalism on Child Well-Being, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2020 National Fellowship.
Other stories in this series include:
Tampa Bay Times
By Romy Ellenbogen and Kathleen McGrory
Four Pasco County residents are suing Sheriff Chris Nocco in federal court, alleging his intelligence program violated their constitutional rights.
The plaintiffs, three of whom were featured in a recent Tampa Bay Times investigation into the Sheriff’s Office’s intelligence arm, say they were harassed, fined and even arrested by overzealous deputies who overstepped their bounds.
They want a judge to put an end to the program, which targets people the Sheriff’s Office deems likely to commit future crimes and their friends and family members.
“The goal here is to shut this program down and to make sure it stops, both for these clients and everybody in Pasco County,” said Robert Johnson, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, the national public interest law firm representing the plaintiffs.
The Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday it had not been made aware of the lawsuit and declined to comment. “We look forward to defending any lawsuits in which we may be named in the proper venue and will not be party to litigation via the media,” spokeswoman Amanda Hunter said.
The agency has previously said it stands behind its intelligence program and credited it with a reduction in burglaries, larcenies and auto thefts over the last decade. The decline mirrors those in nearby police jurisdictions.
Although Nocco launched the program shortly after being named sheriff in 2011, the details of how it works were not known to the public until the Times began reporting on it last year.
The news organization found that the Sheriff’s Office uses arrest histories and information from police reports — including whether people have witnessed or been the victim of a crime — to determine which residents are most likely to break the law.
Deputies then make repeated visits to those individuals’ homes, even when there is no warrant or evidence of a crime.
During some visits, the Times reported, deputies surrounded the targets’ homes in the middle of the night. On others, they wrote or threatened to write code enforcement citations for minor infractions like overgrown grass. Sometimes, they arrested family members of those being targeted.
One former deputy said the objective was to make peoples’ lives miserable.
Institute for Justice attorneys said their organization started looking into the situation after reading the Times’ report. The Virginia-based firm describes itself as libertarian and says it files lawsuits on behalf of individuals who are denied their constitutional rights.
“The behavior of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office is outrageous,” attorney Ari Bargil said. “There’s no such thing as innocent until predicted guilty and that’s exactly how the program operates.”
Johnson said the Sheriff’s Office was violating the constitutional right to be secure in one’s own home. He said the agency was also violating residents’ due process rights because individuals who are targeted can’t challenge their status.
“Being on this list is almost like being on probation for future crimes that haven’t happened yet,” he said. “If you are on real probation, you get a hearing. It’s problematic that they put you on this future probation without any type of hearing.”
The four plaintiffs were either targets or the parents of people who were targeted.
Robert A. Jones, III, whose teenage son was targeted, said when he stopped complying with constant demands from deputies to search his home, he was arrested on charges of marijuana possession and child neglect. Both charges were dropped.
Jones was also issued several code enforcement citations and not told about them, he said. He was then arrested for failing to appear in court. His arrest record dashed his dream of going to law school, he said.
Jones hopes that the lawsuit will set a precedent so nobody else faces what he did.
“I think it’s everybody’s hope that they were put on this earth for a reason,” he said. If he hadn’t gone to jail, he added, “maybe nothing changes, maybe these guys get away with this forever.”
Tammy Heilman, whose teenage son was also a target, was arrested, too.
In September 2016, a deputy showed up to ask about a dirt bike he thought her son had purchased with stolen money. Heilman said she wouldn’t speak without her lawyer there.
The deputy stopped Heilman after she drove away and opened her car door, later alleging that neither she nor her 7-year-old daughter were wearing seat belts. Heilman says her daughter was wearing a seat belt, but she removed it when the door opened. Body-camera video of the interaction shows Heilman calling 9-1-1 for help.
A team of deputies arrived and forced Heilman out of the car. She was taken to jail and charged with resisting an officer, battery on a law enforcement officer and providing false information to deputies.
Two years later, she was arrested again, this time for opening her screen door into a deputy’s chest. After 76 days in jail, Heilman took a plea deal that allowed her to return home but made her a convicted felon.
“They need to stop,” she told the Times. “They have impacted a lot of people’s lives in a negative way.”
In her case, she said, the damage has been “beyond repair.”
The Institute for Justice isn’t the only organization working to address aspects of the Pasco intelligence program.
Earlier this week, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a public records request, seeking to learn more about a separate, but related initiative that uses confidential data from the Pasco school district and the state Department of Children and Families to identify kids who could fall into a life of crime.
The Sheriff’s Office has said it uses the information to offer mentoring and resources to local students. But critics say some of that data is biased against children of color and with disabilities. And they worry a program of this nature could contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.
“There is no place for predictive policing technology in school settings,” said Clarence Okoh, a Legal Defense and Education Fund fellow.
The school district, which is being asked to provide the records, has received the request and plans to respond, a spokesperson said.
[This article was originally published by the Tampa Bay Times.]