Here’s yet another example of a local government shredding the Constitution and violating the natural rights of its citizens. The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office is reportedly scrapping a program that essentially amounts to “pre-crime” as shown in the movie “The Minority Report.”
The program involved compiling a list of residents the department considered likely to commit crimes in the future and sending deputies to harass them in their homes. At best, it is a questionable policy on Fourth Amendment grounds. At worst, it is a flagrant violation of our right to due process.
Pasco County Sheriff’s Office has faced a slew of federal lawsuits after allegedly conducting thousands of “prolific offender checks” on residents without warrants or evidence of criminal activity. The controversial practice involved deputies subjecting individuals to random checks, interrogations, citations, and arrests based on a “dystopian ‘intelligence-led policing’ philosophy.”
According to a court document filed by attorneys for the Sheriff’s Office, the agency has phased out the “prolific offender designation process or prolific offender checks” it was conducting in 2021 and 2022. The agency now focuses on individuals who are reasonably suspected to have committed a particular crime under investigation, which it refers to as “focused offenders.”
The change was ostensibly made in response to changing community needs, including an “epidemic of drug activity.” Critics cite body camera footage that shows deputies interrogating and snooping around plaintiffs’ properties, despite no evidence of criminal activity, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
The lawsuit was filed in 2021 by four Pasco County residents who were targeted in the program. The federal government opened two investigations into the Sheriff’s Office following reports on the controversial practice. While the Sheriff’s Office claims the program helped reduce property crimes, the Times found that other nearby police jurisdictions saw a similar decline in property crimes without using the same tactics.
A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, Britney Morris, stated that judges have previously ruled in favor of the agency in several other cases filed against them by former deputies. However, the ongoing lawsuit remains unresolved, and a judge could rule on the case soon. Meanwhile, Ari Bargil, an attorney with the Institute of Justice, expressed skepticism that the Sheriff’s Office has truly abandoned the practice of trying to identify people it considers future criminals.
Bargil pointed out that the Sheriff’s Office “has not acknowledged any wrongdoing and continues to aggressively defend its campaign of harassment against residents as constitutionally legitimate.”
The attorney also noted that members of the agency testified in court that they could restart the program if they deem it necessary.
In a six-year period, the documents state, the Sheriff’s Office conducted more than 13,000 “prolific offender checks” without warrants or evidence of criminal activity. Body camera footage showed deputies interrogating the plaintiffs and snooping around their properties, and subjecting them to citations and arrests, the document states.
According to a 2020 investigation by the Tampa Bay Times, Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco’s efforts to establish an intelligence program to prevent crime led to a system of continuous monitoring and harassment of residents.
The Sheriff’s Office compiled lists of individuals deemed likely to break the law based on a range of factors, including past arrests, intelligence reports, and arbitrary decisions by police analysts. Deputies are then dispatched to locate and question anyone whose name appears on these lists, frequently without probable cause or a warrant, often in the middle of the night, according to the report.
Residents have reported being woken up by law enforcement officers, with some being issued tickets for minor infractions like missing mailbox numbers and overgrown grass. This resulted in court appearances and fines. Deputies were instructed to make individuals’ lives miserable until they leave or take legal action, according to a former deputy.
The objective, according to a former detective, was to “make their lives miserable until they move or sue.”
Dispatch logs showed that the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office had sent deputies on checks like the ones described above more than 12,500 times since September 2015.
“Deputies gave the mother of one teenage target a $2,500 fine because she had five chickens in her backyard. They arrested another target’s father after peering through a window in his house and noticing a 17-year-old friend of his son smoking a cigarette,” according to the report.
Even further, the Sheriff’s Office had been collecting information on not just the targets, but also their family members, friends, and anyone else in their orbit. This information was then fed back into the system.
“If the offender does not feel the pressure, if the offender is not arrested when they commit their next crime, or if the offender is left to feel their punishment is menial,” according to the Sheriff’s Office manual, “the strategy will have no impact.”
“At the end of every shift, they’d want to know how many prolific-offender checks your squad did,” said Chris Starnes, a former lieutenant with the agency.
Former Capt. James Steffens, who previously served as the chief of the New Port Richey Police Department, explained that deputies who failed to visit enough of these potential offenders could be taken off of special assignments or made to work in areas far from their homes.
The fact that this program ever existed in the first place is a grim reminder that tyranny exists at all levels of government in America. The notion that men with guns and badges could show up at people’s homes to harass them is the type of thing you hear about in authoritarian regimes.
If an individual is convicted of a crime, this does not give the government the right to harass and accost them after they have paid their debt to society – especially if they are not committing further crimes. Any sheriff enacting these types of policies should be swiftly voted out – they clearly do not understand what it means to protect liberty.
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