A Real-Time Reminder of the Value of Police Cameras

I was able to get back into a courtroom for a socially distanced trial this week. It was my first since the pandemic hit, and quite a different experience, between physical distancing and the clear face masks that were provided so that we could see the faces of the jurors and the witnesses. We got a not guilty verdict for my client’s DUI, which was a huge win for him, and a relief to be able to move past the case now that it was done. And it was made easier for us since there was no video.
I’ve talked about the failure of many law enforcement agencies to provide regular video recording of their citizen interactions and arrests, including just recently. Many times, the video would assist the government in their prosecution of the case. That’s particularly true in DUI cases, where the only form of proof is the officer’s testimony about their subjective opinion about the performance on field sobriety exercises. Jury’s expect that evidence, and defense attorneys hammer the absence of video (or often, any corroborating evidence to the opinion testimony.)
In my trial this week, there were several jurors that indicated during jury selection that they would WANT to see video evidence. While the ones that said it out loud may have been struck from the panel, there were likely jurors selected that had a similar, unstated desire to see video evidence as well. After all, jurors want as much evidence as possible, and prosecutors want as much evidence to introduce to help prove their case. There’s a concern that a video might not support an officer’s testimony, but if that’s the case, we shouldn’t be prosecuting those cases. For instance, on a DUI case, if the video doesn’t help the impairment case, prosecutors can know which cases should not be taken to trial before they drag a panel full of jurors in for the day, particularly during a pandemic. 
Frequently, there are disputes between different versions of a story by witnesses on a case. Often, there is a discrepancy between what an officer says, and what the Defendant or his witnesses say about the details of a case. I suspect there is a thinking that it is beneficial for law enforcement not to create video, so that it is harder to challenge the officer’s version of events; the reality is that many disputes would be settled by the video. Disputes in evidence lead to more hearings and trials to settle the disputes, where a video is usually the best qualitative evidence that could be presented. The lack of video hurt the state’s prosecution in this case, and I have several other cases that are still pending because we don’t have video to resolve the dispute in facts. 
I feel like I do an “all cops should have videos” blog post nearly annually here, and several of our local agencies have added body cameras (Fort Myers and Cape Coral police both have done so). But the majority of law enforcement officers in Southwest Florida still do not have body or even car cameras. And defense attorneys like myself are going to keep hammering the issue in court, and jurors are going to keep being surprised that videos are not readily available in the year 2020. 

Kentucky I-75 Shooting Ruled Self-Defense

Kentucky prosecutors announced that no charges will be filed against a driver who shot another driver on Friday afternoon. Details are unclear as to what led up to the accident, but multiple witnesses confirmed one driver got out of his car with a rifle and approached the other car. The driver of the other car was already on the phone with 911 when he saw the rifle, and drew his own gun. the operator heard an exchange between the two men, and then the man in the car shot the man with the rifle.

If the photograph above is any indication, it certainly sounds like a clear cut case of self-defense. If you walk up on somebody with a firearm in hand, and in that photo he appears to be pointing it at the other driver, that other party is likely to have a reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury. It sounds like the witnesses and the 911 call verify that the guy was justified in using deadly force to defend himself.

High-Speed Chase ends poorly for Truck and Police Car

Austin Westgate fled a Polk County deputy this weekend, initiating a high speed chase that ended up with his vehicle on top of a deputy’s patrol vehicle. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, and deputies were able to arrest the suspect sitting on top of their car.
austin-westgate-1Deputies responded to a possible burglary, and a suspect jumped into the gold truck. He fled, evaded stop sticks, took out some mailboxes and ultimately struck a steel support cable, causing the rear of his vehicle to pop in the air. Deputies arrested the driver, Austin Westgate, and learned he already had an outstanding warrant for fleeing. Suffice to say he took a bad situation and made it much, much worse.

Florida Woman Charged for Keeping Raccoons as Pets

Candidly, I did not know it was illegal to keep raccoons as pets, and have never seen anybody charged with it. The Florida administrative code has classified several native species so that they cannot be kept without a permit if they are taken from the wild. Included under this classification are also skunks, bats, fox and whitetail deer- so no trying to keep Bambi! There is no restriction on keeping rats, mice, squirrels, chipmunks and most of the commonly kept pet animals.

Tori Parsons

Tori Parsons, of Venice, Florida was cited after a neighbor reported she was keeping racoons as pets. She only ended up getting arrested when she failed to appear for court, and got a bench warrant, though she has since bonded out. The charge is criminal, but it is only a second degree misdemeanor, the least serious criminal offense in Florida. FWC gave her three days to transport and surrender the animals to a licensed wildlife facility, and it was only when she failed to do so that she was cited.

Rodney Knox

As always, Crimcourts will stay on top of all wildlife related criminal news. Which reminds me, I didn’t get to report on the recent story about Florida Flying Squirrels. National Geographic reports that thousands of Southern Flying Squirrels may have been illegally trapped for the pet trade, and shipped overseas to places like South Korea. Rodney Knox and 5 of his associates are facing charges as serious as racketeering for the ongoing  operation. Knox runs a farm and breeding operation, but FWC alleges that was a front for an illegal capture business, and Knox has a history running afoul of breeding regulations, including a warning for trapping flying squirrels.  This operation rivals the time FWC set up a fake alligator farm to catch egg poachers!

Robert Kraft’s Charges Dismissed

Robert Kraft, the billionaire owner of the Patriots was charged in Palm Beach County with soliciting prostitution for allegedly going into a massage parlor and receiving sexual contact. His attorneys challenged the case on many fronts, but ultimately succeeded by attacking the validity of the search warrant that allowed them to place a video camera in the private areas of the massage parlor. The court was troubled by the fact that the cameras would film people in an intimate setting, many of which may not have been breaking the law. The State argued that the warrants were justified, in part because they could help fight human trafficking, but no trafficking charges were filed in relation to these cases.

The court suggested that such a warrant could potentially be possible if it included enough restrictions to prevent filming innocent individuals, but that it fell far short. Placing a video camera in such an intimate place is extremely invasive, and is the kind of thing that troubled the court greatly, and the court suppressed all the evidence obtained through these searches, which covered Kraft and several other co-defendants that were caught up in the same operation.

The State appealed the court’s ruling, and the case was on hold until the recent decision by the 4th DCA appellate court that agreed with the trial court. The court wrote, “The type of law enforcement surveillance utilized in these cases is extreme,” and set a precedent that will set limits on the use of “sneek and peek” warrants. The State declined to appeal the case to the Florida Supreme court, making today’s announcement that they were dropping the charges inevitable. Several other defendants, in multiple counties, who still had charges pending will see their cases dropped, and many of the others involved had already gotten their charges dropped by completion of a diversion program. Most importantly, this case, between the trial judge and the appellate court, has sent a strong message against law enforcement doing invasive searches like the sneek and peek warrants.

Florida Man Convicted of Smuggling Water Monitor Lizards

Akbar Akram with a Water Monitor lizard

A Florida man was sentenced for his part in a scheme to traffic in Water Monitor lizards from the Philippines. Adbar Akram and an accomplice in Massachusetts imported lizards that were taped into socks, and then concealed in audio speakers and other electronic equipment. Akram admitted to his part in the scheme, and to selling lizards to buyers around the United States. All this is illegal, and he was sentenced to 4 years of probation with 90 days home detention and 288 hours of community service.  Don’t smuggle wildlife!

Making the Case for Body-Worn Cameras

I have repeatedly recommended the adoption of body-worn cameras for law enforcement. It’s a win-win situation. There’s never a problem of having too much evidence. Having active cameras can only help get to the truth for police-citizen encounters. The body cameras cut both ways, and do not favor a party who’s statement does not line up with the video… the video favors facts.

Body worn cameras would be beneficial in the recent Los Angeles shooting of Dijon Kizzee. L.A. deputies claim that he dropped a firearm and was picking it up when they shot him. However, they did not have body cameras. The only video was earlier by someone with a camera phone and that footage only shows Kizzee running away. We don’t know what happened that led up to the moment of the shooting, and if deputies had bodycams, that might have given us an answer. It certainly would be beneficial to the Sheriff’s Department if they had body cameras that showed Mr. Kizzee reaching for the weapon. Departments have resisted using body cameras when so often, when the officers are acting appropriately, the cameras would be for their protection. Admittedly, there are flaws: the cameras don’t catch everything, but that’s not a reason not to try to get video.

Sarasota is considering body cameras for their police force. One of the concerns is the expense. The Herald-Tribune ran this editorial last week, arguing that the cost is worth it to acquire body cams. The editorial also ran here in Fort Myers the other day- Fort Myers and Cape Coral do issue body cameras, though the Lee County Sheriff’s Office has not. The Charlotte County Sheriff has recently reconsidered his stance, and will now be seeking body cameras for his department. I applaud this decision and encourage other law enforcement agencies to join CCSO, FMPD, CCPD and many others in outfitting their officers with this important equipment.

Again, be sure to check out the editorial: https://www.heraldtribune.com/story/opinion/editorials/2020/09/15/police-use-force-can-lessened-body-cameras-if-done-right/5790554002/

Sweetie the Alligator has been Deputized by Florida Sheriff’s Office

This video of an Alligator being carried into a Key Like Pie store, in addition to being the most Florida thing ever, when viral when it was shared a few months ago. Sweetie is a rescue Gator that lives at Jungle Adventures park… when she’s not visiting schools or hanging out at the Key Like Pie store. You can read more about the background of “Sweetie” the Alligator in this story by Craig Pittman.

Sweetie became such a hit, that Brevard Sheriff Wayne Ivey decided to swear her in as a “resource reptile”. You can see Deputy Sweetie most weekends at the Key Lime Pie store on Cocoa Beach, when she’s not back at jungle adventures!

Sweetie being sworn in

Gambling Granny Killer Lois Riess Pleads Guilty Again

Lois Reiss mug shot

Lois Riess, who has already pleaded guilty to murder charges in Florida and received a life sentence in exchange for avoiding the death penalty, has now pleaded guilty to the murder of her husband in Minnesota. Riess, dubbed “Losing Streak Lois” by law enforcement that pursued her on a multi-state manhunt after she committed her second murder on Fort Myers Beach, had come to Florida after this murder in Minnesota. She targeted, befriended, then betrayed and killed a woman she met on Fort Myers Beach to assume her identity, take her car, and then spent several days on the lamb. She was caught on video gambling in a casino, hence the nickname, before being spotted and turned in by an observant civilian in Texas. Riess was already going to spend the rest of her life in prison, thanks to her plea to the Lee County, Florida murder charges. This resolves her remaining murder, and she will likely serve out her sentence in Minnesota.

Arrests Made in Polk County Triple Murder

Polk County Murder Defendants

Three people have been arrested in the triple murder of three friends who were killed on a fishing trip in Frostproof. The alleged shooter, Tony “T.J.” Wiggins, allegedly accused the victims of stealing his truck and then shot all three of them. Wiggins has multiple prior felony convictions (though the

Tony Wiggins via DOC

200 quoted in the article is unclear- it likely includes duplicative arrests), and has been to prison multiple times at only 26 years of age. The other two co-defendants are charged with accessory and tampering. The report doesn’t seem to indicate that they were directly involved in the killings, and the state will likely try to use their charges to pressure them to flip on the accused shooter. The brutal nature suggests that this is a case the state may seek the death penalty, but that decision likely won’t be made for a few weeks. First degree murder carries a mandatory life sentence.