Lawsuit: Florida sheriff’s intel program harasses people

March 11, 2021 GMT

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — A federal lawsuit contends that a Florida sheriff is violating people’s rights through an intelligence-based policing program that improperly targets and harasses them. The sheriff rejects those claims.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in Tampa federal court claims the Pasco Sheriff’s Office “punishes people for crimes they have not committed and may never commit” — a practice dubbed predictive policing.

Sheriff Chris Nocco’s office called the description false and said its Intelligence-Led Policing program is guided by a person’s criminal history or a school student’s characterization as being at risk.

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“Far from being a predictive policing program that focuses on future crimes that someone may commit, the prolific offender program and the at-risk youth program are focused on serving our community,” a Pasco sheriff’s statement said.

The lawsuit was filed by the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that represents four Pasco County residents who have encountered the sheriff’s program. The lawsuit’s goal is to end it.

Pasco County is just north of Clearwater, Florida, along the Gulf of Mexico coast.

In an email Thursday, sheriff’s spokeswoman Amanda Hunter said the office will “look forward to defending any lawsuits” in court but not through the media.

The lawsuit follows an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times into the program that described people being repeatedly visited by deputies in their homes at all hours and arrests of their family members without solid legal reasoning.

One plaintiff, Tammy Heilman, said she was arrested twice after deputies came to her house in 2016 to ask about a dirt bike that her son may have bought with stolen money.

What followed was a traffic stop that led to Heilman being charged with several things, including battery on a law enforcement officer. She was later arrested for opening her screen door into a deputy’s chest and spent 76 days in jail.

The lawsuit contends the program’s aim is to make what it calls targeted persons “miserable until they move or sue,” quoting a former Pasco County deputy who is not named. The lawsuit says the program violates several constitutional rights.

“The government cannot punish you — or your friends or your family — for crimes you haven’t committed,” the lawsuit says.

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The Pasco sheriff’s office, in its lengthier statement, said the program is modeled after one adopted in the United Kingdom in the 1990s and that the idea is not to target anyone for harassment.

“It is the goal of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office to have a positive impact on these individuals and our community,” the statement says.

The sheriff’s statement specifically mentions the 2002 film “Minority Report,” which starred Tom Cruise as chief of a “precrime” police bureau that arrests people before any crime is committed based on information provided by psychics.

The program, the sheriff’s office says in part, is not “in any way, shape or form the ideals or implementations projected in the film ‘Minority Report.’”

A central piece of that movie is the idea that some of the psychics disagree with the majority on whether a specific person will become a criminal.

Other jurisdictions have tackled similar issues. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, last year scrapped for financial reasons a controversial program called “Pred-Pol” that sought to predict where property crimes would occur. Critics said it focused disproportionately on Black and Hispanic communities.

The Florida lawsuit contends the Pasco program violates constitutional amendments that protect rights of association and due process, and against unreasonable searches and seizures. It asks a judge to end the program and award each plaintiff $1, in addition to attorney fees and costs.