Pubdate: Sat, 24 Dec 2011
Source: St. Petersburg Times (FL)
Copyright: 2011 St. Petersburg Times
Author: Rita Farlow, Times Staff Writer


Jeremy Harris' household was winding down for the night. It was about
10 p.m., his children were getting ready for bed and he was watching
TV, when a uniformed deputy and two undercover detectives knocked on
the door of his Dunedin home.

Harris says the Pinellas sheriff's detectives told him they had gotten
an anonymous tip that he was growing marijuana, and they asked if they
could search his property.

Harris stepped outside and was astonished to see other deputies
standing nearby in groups of two - 10 to 14 of them, he estimates.

"They looked like full SWAT," he said. "They've got the vests and
assault rifles. It just seemed like an awful excessive amount of force
for somebody that is maybe just growing marijuana on the property.
They showed up with enough force to deal with a drug cartel."

Harris, 38, let the detectives do their search. They did not find any

Harris doesn't believe the detectives got an anonymous tip. He thinks
they came to his home just because he frequented a hydroponic
gardening shop in Largo that the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office had
under surveillance.

"It doesn't seem right for them to be watching a business and then
harassing the customers, basically just for shopping at that
business," he said.

Harris and another man told their stories to the St. Petersburg Times
after a Dec. 4 article about surveillance tactics used by the
Sheriff's Office.

Narcotics deputies with the agency had erected a camera on a pole
across the street from Simply Hydroponics at 7949 Ulmerton Road, a
store that specializes in hydroponic gardening equipment.

Detectives recorded license tag numbers, identified vehicle owners and
got their home addresses. Then, according to the Sheriff's Office,
they would check the power usage at the home and perform "spot checks"
to look for signs of criminal activity.

But it was their noses they used to persuade local judges to give them
search warrants to go into the homes of Simply Hydroponics customers.
They claimed they could smell marijuana growing while standing outside
those homes.

In 39 cases between Jan. 1, 2010, and Sept. 15, 2011, detectives got
search warrants, went into the homes of the store's customers, and
found either marijuana or marijuana plants in all of them.

But in 34 other cases, detectives went to customers' homes without
search warrants and performed what's known as a "knock and talk," in
which deputies told residents they believed they were growing
marijuana and asked for consent to search their homes.

And in 12 of those cases, they found no marijuana and no marijuana

Shane Metler was one of those cases.

According to a Sheriff's Office report, detectives saw Metler's car at
Simply Hydroponics on Dec. 18, 2010. On the evening of July 7, two
detectives and a deputy knocked on Metler's door.

He said the detectives told him they had gotten complaints from his
neighbors about cars coming and going, and they had detected the smell
of growing marijuana coming from his home, both charges he vehemently

Metler, 35, allowed them to search the house he shares with his
girlfriend. They did not find any marijuana or pot plants, but did
find a soil-free hydroponic system being used to grow legal plants,
according to their notes.

"I have to admit, it really shook us up," Metler said. "So, for the
next four hours, we were pacing around the house and just bewildered,
shocked. It really was disrupting."

Metler said he consented to the search because he knew he wasn't doing
anything illegal.

But, he said, the visit put him in a "lose-lose situation, where I
either look guilty or give up my rights as a citizen."

The Sheriff's Office camera across from Simply Hydroponics was removed
Dec. 4 or 5, said shop co-owner Dawn Bednar.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who was appointed by Gov. Rick
Scott in November when former Sheriff Jim Coats retired, said he
ordered it taken down because marijuana grow houses are, and should
be, a lesser priority in a county at the epicenter of the state's
prescription drug crisis.

"My emphasis from a policy standpoint is not on those types of
operations," he said. "I want our folks to focus on those things I
consider to be the most important public safety threats ... like
prescription drugs, the opiate drugs, a squeeze on pill mills ... also

Gualtieri insisted that homes weren't visited without search warrants
"simply because somebody showed up at Simply Hydroponics." People seen
on video at the store were further investigated, he said, if narcotics
detectives determined there were other indicators of possible criminal
activity, such as anonymous tips, previous criminal history, criminal
intelligence or information gathered from confidential informants.

Jeremy Harris, the Dunedin man who found 10 to 14 deputies outside his
home, felt harassed by the Sheriff's Office's tactics. His mother,
whom he lives with, said she feels differently.

"I don't feel they violated my rights. They asked to search and I gave
them permission," Nancy Harris said.

Harris said she was "happy" detectives searched her home because it
showed dedication to fighting drug use and sale, an effort she supports.

Harris also said she felt the deputies acted professionally, taking
special care not to disturb her three grandchildren.

"They didn't scare the children. They didn't disturb the children.
They were very polite, and apologetic afterward," she said.
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