PASCO COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — Several Pasco County residents are filing suit against the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, claiming the agency used an intelligence program to harass them and violate their constitutional rights.
“They came every single day. After we took it to court and they lost, they got really upset and started showing up multiple times a day,” said Robert Jones.
Jones is part of the lawsuit and claims his son was a target as soon as they moved to Pasco County because he had gotten in trouble in Pinellas County.
The Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office alleging that their intelligence-led policing policy created an environment in which deputies, “relentlessly surveilled and harassed residents. Residents claim police regularly showed up at their homes unannounced and demanded entry. If they or their parents don’t cooperate, police wrote tickets for petty violations, like missing house numbers or having grass that is too tall.”
“There’s no such thing as innocent until predicted guilty and in Pasco County, that’s exactly how to describe what’s happening,” said Ari Bargil, an attorney with the Institute for Justice.
The sheriff’s office says the program does not work off predictions, instead, it aims to work with people based on their criminal history to break the cycle of recidivism.
Jones claims deputies had his family living in fear, especially when he stopped cooperating.
According to the lawsuit, Jones was cited for several code enforcement violations including overgrown grass, not visible address numbers and a jet ski too close to his home, and eventually arrested for child neglect.
*Below is Pasco County Sheriff’s Office body camera video*
“Robert was arrested five times by Pasco deputies. Although the bogus charges never stuck—they were all dropped—the harassment accomplished its goal: Robert ultimately moved his family out of Pasco County to escape the constant harassment from the Sheriff’s Office,” according to a release from the Institute of Justice.
Tammy Heilman is also part of the lawsuit. She claims her son was also a target, which led to constant harassment, and eventually she was arrested.
“They make you seem like you’re some criminal. Now on paper, I am a criminal, which I’m really not,” Heilman said.
The lawsuit alleges that “the county’s prolific offender checks violate the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures. The due-process and equal-protection guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment guard against arbitrary or irrational government actions. In this case, law enforcement officials cannot use a legitimate law, like code enforcement, to achieve an illegitimate purpose, like harassing and forcing prolific offenders and their families to ‘cooperate’ during prolific offender checks.”
The sheriff’s office said previously the people speaking out have “significant criminal histories.”
They also said some of the visits were probation visits, or due to code enforcement issues.
In regards to the lawsuit, a sheriff’s office spokesperson said they weren’t aware of it. They released a statement saying, “We have not been made aware or served any lawsuit like the one you mentioned, so we are unable to comment on such. However, it is interesting to note that continually the media is made aware of these instances prior to PSO’s knowledge of them. We look forward to defending any lawsuits in which we may be named in the proper venue and will not be party to litigation via the media.”
To view the full lawsuit, click the download button below.