In years past, law enforcement officers enjoyed an unquestioned reputation for hard work, fairness and honesty. They were recognized for a very high standard of conduct and for the most part, the public perceived them as beyond reproach. Television reinforced this perception with such memorable characters as “Sergeant Joe Friday from Dragnet,” “Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry,” and “Detective Frank Columbo.”
Television initially contributed to the bolstering of a heroic positive public opinion. However, subsequent TV coverage of police officers wielding “billy clubs” and employing excessive force during the 1960’s race riots brought revolting police conduct directly into the living rooms of thousands of Americans. Although uncovering corruption was a difficult task because of a shared a “code of silence” See: Police Ethics and Integrity: Breaking the Blue Code of Silence, the tide had nonetheless changed. The testimony of a policeman was no longer “gospel.”
The advent of smart phones with built in video cameras brought on a heightened scrutiny. Today, body worn cameras, I-Phones and Androids capture acts of discrimination and miscarriages of justice. The media now shouts about coerced confessions, falsification of evidence, unwarranted searches and perjury. It is now far easier to hold police officers accountable for their actions and to ferret out the “bad seeds.” See: Lights, Camera, Redaction... Police Body-Worn Cameras: Autonomy, Discretion and Accountability.
Police Officers Must Be Judged Like Any Other Witness
The truth of the matter is that police officers are human and subject to to the same frailties as any other man or woman. They can be motivated by greed, jealousy or laziness that leads to taking short-cuts. Some harbor unmanaged anger, alcohol or substance abuse, lapses of morality, honor, and truthfulness. Even good cops are capable of making mistakes and are prone to momentary lapses of good judgment – just like all of us. No where is this perspective more recognized than in the law itself. Florida Jury Instructions Chapter 3.9 concerns itself with the “Weighing of Evidence.” The Judge is required to tell the members of the jury that:
“The fact that a witness is employed in law enforcement does not mean that [his] [her] testimony deserves more or less consideration than that of any other witness.”
Many of our clients often pose the question “Isn’t it simply my word against the cops, or how can we win since the judge will believe the police?” Keep in mind that you are presumed innocent and you have nothing to prove. On the other hand, the prosecution has the burden of proof. Likewise, they need more that just proof. They need “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” Florida Standard Jury Instruction 3.7
The police report is not admissible as evidence in court. The police officer will be required to testify and be subject to cross examination by your lawyer. The judge may believe what the police officer has to say, but find that the burden of prove has not risen to the appropriate high standard. In the alternative, there are times when the judge doesn’t believe the cop. For example, Pinellas Circuit Court Judge Michael Andrews recently listened to the sworn testimony of St. Petersburg Police Officer Brandon Bill who reported the faint smell of marijuana that led to a search and arrest of the driver. Judge Andrews stated:
“It stretches the limits of credulity for this court to believe that the search of the defendant’s vehicle was based upon the odor of marijuana. Officer Bill’s testimony is discredited, controverted and contradictory within itself , and as such incredible.” Pinellas Judge Finds St. Petersburg Officer’s Testimony ‘incredible’ – and Not in a Good Way
Good police officers are deserving of our respect and support. Bad cops deserve accountability for their inappropriate behavior, incompetence, or misconduct. Just because a police officer makes an arrest does not mean that the allegation of criminal conduct is true or that it can be proven by evidence. The investigative work of the police officer in your case needs to be carefully scrutinized. Their background and experience can also be vetted.
The PCSO Uncovers Underserving Brethren
2016 started out on a sour note for the Pinellas county Sheriff’s Office. In hindsight the events that took place seemed to be an omen for things to come. See: Pinellas sheriff fires seven recruits for cheating on training exam. The recruits were on track to become patrol deputies within three short months. The field training deputy accused of surreptitiously providing advanced copies of the exam to the recruits resigned shortly after the conspiracy was discovered. The conduct on the part of the recruits was described by the PCSO hierarchy as “deceitful,” “deliberate” and “clandestine.” The seven recruits were summarily terminated accompanied by a press statement from Sheriff Bob Gualtieri that stated:
“People who are cheats and liars do not have a place at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office”
The firing of the recruits set the stage in the following months for the termination of a dumbfounding number of Pinellas County Sheriff Deputies. Keep in mind that the following list encompasses firings limited to only the past twelve month period and does not include other disciplinary sanctions such as suspensions or demotions:
- Deputy Timothy Virden was fired from the PCSO on or about January 30th, 2016 after his arrest for an attempted manslaughter charge. Tampa Bay Reporter
- Deputy Timothy Alan Vaughn was fired from the PCSO on May 16th, 2016 after his arrest in Manatee County for DUI Manslaughter. Tampa Bay Times Article
- Deputy Mathew Stanfield was terminated from the PCSO on June 20, 2016 after it was alleged that he lied to investigators about an altercation he had with a jail inmate. Tampa Bay Times
- Deputy Sheila Langlais was employed by the PCSO in July 2014. She was hired despite a checkered past with the Tarpon Springs PD and the Pinellas Park PD. She resigned from the PCSO in 2016 during an investigation into the improper display of her firearm during a road rage incident. She originally faced a felony aggravated assault charge for allegedly pointing her firearm at the passenger of the other vehicle with both of her hands before driving away. (This had involved an argument over a parking spot.) Had she not resigned, it is reasonable to assume she would have been terminated, because on October 9, 2016 Langlais was convicted by a jury for the lesser offense of improper display of a firearm. She was originally sentenced to 364 days incarceration in the Pinellas County Jail. However, her sentence was subsequently modified to one year of probation, a condition of which that she serve 120 days in the county jail and complete an eight-hour anger management course.Tampa Bay Times
- Deputy Steven Jared Smith was fired from the PCSO on or about October 13th, 2016 for allegedly stealing prescription drugs and selling his duty firearm to a pawn shop. He was arrested for two counts of Grand Theft and Possession of Hydrocodone. Tampa Bay Times Article
- Deputy Wayne Wagner was fired from the PCSO on November 18th, 2016 for allegedly using excessive force during a traffic stop and falsifying a report. News Channel 8
- PCSO Lt. Robert Ross was fired December 28th, 2016 after a 20 month career with the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office. His termination came after he was accused of an interoffice love affair with a subordinate. Ross initially denied the affair until presented with evidence to the contrary. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri was quoted as saying “I have no sympathy for people who don’t tell the truth.” Tampa Bay Times
- Deputy John Farese was fired from the PCSO on January 18th, 2017 after the PCSO concluded that he had provided untruthful information regarding his January 11th, 2017 arrest on charges of Domestic Battery and Tampering With a Witness. PCSO Inter-Office Memorandum
- Deputy Scott Nichols was fired from the PCSO on or about February 2, 2017 after internal investigations alleged various on the job shenanigans that included playing games, sleeping and wrestling matches. Days before the termination, Nichols had been demoted from a supervisory corporal status to a deputy position after he was accused of having intimate relationships with two married deputies, while he was also married. Tampa Bay Times
As these multiple examples reveal, it would be incredibly foolish to simply take every police officer at his word.
Every Profession Has its “Bad Apples”
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has developed a reputation for being a “no-nonsense” administrator. He has taken the position that if a Deputy fails to tell the truth or violates the law, he no longer deserves to wear a PCSO uniform. See: Get a DUI & Get Fired: The Pinellas Sheriff’s Flawed Zero-Tolerance Policy. The Sheriff’s uncompromising policy has had the effect of undoing the traditional “code of silence.” Today, the public and the legal community are now far more sophisticated in the need to question the truthfulness of all witnesses (including police officers) and the integrity of each criminal investigations.
Leaving No Stone Unturned
As criminal defense lawyers, we zealously represent Pinellas county clients who are charged with DUI, misdemeanor or felony offenses. We don’t take any witness or piece of evidence at its face value. In fact, we find it to be a healthy approach to view all of the prosecutor’s witnesses and evidence with a great deal of skepticism. We have a combined legal experience of over 50 years and our team of defense lawyers has developed a multitude of ways to dissect the state’s evidence. This includes highly scrutinizing the background and allegations of every prosecution witness. When appropriate, we don’t hesitate to also employ the services of experts in diverse fields of practice or use our private investigator.
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