Pubdate: Sun, 11 Dec 2011
Source: St. Petersburg Times (FL)
Copyright: 2011 St. Petersburg Times


The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has been using a law enforcement
technique that resembles a fishing expedition. It surreptitiously
trained a camera at a hydroponics supply business, turning every
customer who walked through the door into a suspected marijuana
grower. This kind of surveillance may be technically legal, but it is
intrusive and violates the spirit of the Fourth Amendment's privacy
protections. People should be allowed to pursue lawful activities
without automatically provoking a police investigation.

To his credit, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has ordered the camera
taken down. Gualtieri, who was only recently appointed by Gov. Rick
Scott to fill the remainder of an unexpired term, says the
prescription drug problem, cocaine and other drugs where public safety
is at risk will be the agency's priority. Encouragingly, he also says
that his agency has to be careful about focusing attention on people
who are going about their business and not engaging in inherently
suspicious conduct.

Simply Hydroponics is a garden shop in Largo that serves customers who
want to cultivate plants of many types with water and nutrients, but
no soil. Because this technique is popular with marijuana growers who
tend their crops indoors so as not to be detected, the sheriff's
office mounted a camera on a nearby pole to record the license plates
numbers of the store's customers. For more than two years, this tactic
was used to watch, identify and harass the store's customers.

As reported by St. Petersburg Times staff writer Rita Farlow, the
sheriff's office would check customers' home energy bills. Hydroponic
marijuana growers use a disproportionate amount of electricity. A
suspect house would be visited to see if there were other telltale
signs of marijuana growing, such as blacked-out windows. Farlow noted
that in nearly every affidavit for a search warrant, deputies would
claim that they smelled marijuana being grown inside. Experts dispute
the likelihood of that except where there is a huge number of plants.

Deputies found marijuana growing in each of the 39 cases for which
they obtained a search warrant, between Jan. 1. 2010, and Sept. 15,
and Gualtieri says a large cache of plants and weapons were seized at
many addresses. But this doesn't justify the number of innocent people
who drew uncomfortable law enforcement attention just for shopping.
While some Simply Hydroponic customers have turned out to be marijuana
growers, another contingent are simply gardeners growing legal plants
and organic food.

Co-owner Dawn Bednar aptly compared her shop to a gun shop. "Everyone
who visits a gun shop isn't a murderer," Bednar said. Exactly. Imagine
the political firestorm if the police posted a camera to investigate
everyone who came out of a gun show, where customers can buy firearms
while avoiding a background check - one way criminals get guns.

Cameras are cheap to operate compared to posting a deputy for constant
surveillance. That is what makes this law enforcement approach all the
more concerning. It can be used with impunity. Should every customer
who walks into a drugstore where cough medicine can be used to get
high also be worried that a secret police camera is recording the
visit for further scrutiny? It's a recipe for driving small businesses
bankrupt, and for making local residents feel constantly under watch -
an anathema in a free society. 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jo-D