Category Archives: Florida

Amira Fox Cleared by Ethics Commission

State Attorney Amira Fox, who won election handily to the office vacated by retiring State Attorney Steve Russell, received some good news this afternoon. The Florida Commission on Ethics released a statement about their findings from the hearing on Monday, and found no probable cause regarding the complaint that had been filed against her in 2017, prior to the campaign for State Attorney for the 20th Judicial Circuit.

The complaint was filed by a friend of Ms. Fox’s opponent in the race, Chris Crowley. While the Ethics Commission would not confirm that a complaint had been filed, Crowley and his friends discussed it in the media, and tried to use it as a campaign issue. The complaint alleged Ms. Fox had misused her position at the State while running for office, basically claiming she was improperly campaigning during work hours. This ruling should put any concerns to rest, as the Commission finding of no probable cause means there were not sufficient grounds to proceed.

Sarasota Police try to Charge an Attorney Defending Her Client

Sarasota defense attorney, and friend of the firm, Varinia Van Ness had criminal charges sought by the Sarasota Police against her for her representation of her client. The mere fact that officers would even consider trying to charge a defense attorney for zealously doing her job is shocking. It’s petty, retaliatory, and an affront to our adversarial system of justice. Fortunately, the officer’s multiple attempts to file charges were rebuffed by cooler heads.

Attorney Varinia Van Ness, via
http://www.vannesslawgroup.com/

It started when two Sarasota detectives sought to serve search warrants on Ms. Van Ness’ client and his phone. The parties agreed to meet at Van Ness’ office but about 10 minutes into the meeting, it was revealed that a Detective Derek Galbraith had activated a recording device without notifying Ms. Van Ness. When she found out, she insisted he either terminate the recording, or to leave the office. He declined to turn it off, but he also declined to leave the office. She indicated he was trespassing, but he still wouldn’t leave and Van Ness eventually called 911 to get him to leave.

After detectives left, they tried to serve the warrants again at the client’s work, at his brother’s house, and even at his ex-girlfriend’s home. Van Ness and her client agreed to meet at the police department. When the Detectives read the phone warrant, a spelling error was noticed in the client’s name, and Van Ness and her client left the room, though they ultimately did submit a DNA sample. Later that day, Detective Dan Riley from the Sarasota PD requested that a warrant be issued for the arrest of attorney Van Ness for obstruction of justice.

Fortunately, the warrant was never issued. It was submitted to a judge who recognized that the case involved a defense attorney doing her job, which would be a valid challenge to the warrant. He said it would have to be reviewed the State Attorneys office to see if formal charges were warranted. Sarasota PD didn’t give up, and submitted the warrant request to the State Attorney’s office. The local SAO had a conflict of interest, and the case was reassigned to the 20th Judicial Circuit SAO, who also declined to file charges. Sarasota PD took one more shot, submitting the case to FDLE, who also declined to pursue charges. The case was reviewed by three separate independent judges/agencies, who all agreed there was no merit to bringing charges.

This type of attack on an attorney is shocking and very problematic to the justice system. Ultimately, the fear would be that if cops can go charge an attorney for advocating for their clients, the chilling affect on the job of defense attorneys would harm our criminal justice system and is an affront to the Constitutional protection to the right to be represented by an attorney. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to assistance of counsel, and it applies at every level of a criminal investigation.

It’s rare that law enforcement would seek to charge an attorney for advocacy in the normal course of their work. Usually, it takes something really egregious, the Paul Bergrin case in New Jersey springs to mind, where he assisted gangsters placing hits against witnesses. Only something extreme that goes beyond advocacy should even be considered, and even then, it should be reviewed by attorneys before being submitted for a warrant.

Asking a Detective to leave your office because they recorded you without permission is not obstruction of justice. Declining to have your client turn over his phone password when his name is spelled wrong on the warrant is not obstruction of justice. That’s advocacy. Zealous advocates like Varinia Van Ness are the first check against government overreach and the primary protection of individual Constitutional rights. We are lucky to have defense attorneys like Varinia.

via Sarasota Herald-Tribune

FMPD Sued for Arresting and Tasing a Man for No Legal Reason

jones taser

Jones, about to be tased from behind

Two FMPD officers had no legal reason to arrest Holley Jones in April, 2018, but when he tried to walk away, they tasered him. The officers indicate they responded to a third-party complaint about a disorderly person, which apparently did not identify Jones. The whole incident is on body cam, and Mr. Jones is not causing a disturbance when officers come in and tell him they want to talk to him. When he declines to come outside, he tries to shake the officer’s hand, and the officer gets angry, and starts yelling at him not to touch him, pulls out his taser, and orders him outside. Jones says he did nothing wrong, and the officer says you’re real close to doing something wrong.

An officer is not allowed to detain someone, or order them around, unless he has evidence that they’ve done something wrong. Jones’ refusal to come outside isn’t improper because the officer doesn’t have evidence of a crime to have the authority to order him outside. People like to say you don’t have to consent to officers if you’ve done nothing wrong, but it results in poor Mr. Jones getting tased when he eventually runs away from the officers.

Something that’s nearly as bad as the unnecessary violence is that the officers mislead in their report to try to justify their actions. They indicate in their report that Jones did not seem to understand what they wanted him to do. The video is clear that he understood, but did not consent to following them outside or being searched. Then the officers say that when he ran back inside, he turned around in a “defensive posture with his arms raised,” and “a closed fist as if he was going to strike” the officer. The video clearly shows the officer is lying, as Jones is simply trying to evade the illegal arrest. The irony is that experienced criminal attorneys will recognize the “defensive posture” language as a phrasing that cops frequently use to justify use of force. In this case, thanks to the body-worn cameras, the truth is exposed. NBC-2 uploaded the video here, and it is somewhat graphic.

The case went to court, and on a motion to suppress, the state could not show a lawful detention, and the evidence was suppressed, leading to the case being dropped. Officers are allowed to talk to people in a consensual encounter, but they can’t just order people around who aren’t breaking the law. This should be a teaching tool, and body cams will help improve police and citizen interactions. In the meantime, this poor police work will probably lead to Mr. Jones getting paid. Not only that, they found substantial amounts of drugs on him, but he cannot be prosecuted due to the poor police work.

Spate of Burrito Attacks in, Where Else, Florida

peter elacqua

Peter Elacqua

Just a few days before Valentine’s Day, Peter Elacqua of Port Richey was arrested for striking his girlfriend with a burrito. They got in an argument, and while in the bedroom, he pushed her into

peter elacqua2

Elacqua in 2017

a chair and threw his burrito at her. He fled before cops arrived, and she still had bits of burrito on her when the cops arrived. They tracked down Elacqua a few days later, and arrested him and charged him with domestic battery. Elacqua has an extensive arrest history, including the mug shot at right. Apparently, his being Ninja hasn’t kept him out of jail.

victor fosser

Victor Fosser

This was the second burrito attack in as many months. In January, Victor Fosser of Parrish, Florida, was charged with domestic battery for smashing a burrito in his wife’s face during an argument over a family issue. It is a crime to touch or strike anyone against their will, and that includes food. It’s at least the third burrito battery we’ve covered at Crimcourts… it’s getting to the point where Mexican food attacks are becoming commonplace. Still illegal, though.

Watch out for this Femme Fatale

mayira okheda-garsia

Mayira Okheda-Garsia

Mayira Okheda-Garsia may not look the part, but this femme fatale has been charged with masterminding an armed robbery plot against her ex-boyfriend. The victim said that Okheda and three masked, armed men busted through his sliding glass door and robbed him at gunpoint. He said the men were wearing bandannas and held him at gunpoint while they took his gold jewelry. His roommate came in, and all four offenders fled in a Toyota Camry.

devante sparks

Davante Sparks

Deputies located the Camry, which took off. After a chase, the vehicle stopped and the occupants fled, though the driver was caught. Deputies called in aviation and K-9 units to conduct a search, and ultimately located Okheda hiding under a trailer. They caught a third suspect, Devante Sparks, when he texted Okheda’s phone to let her know he had made it

kameron williams

Kameron Williams

home… they went to his house and picked him up. The fourth suspect is still on the run. All the suspects are facing charges for armed home invasion robbery and theft, and the driver, Kameron Williams, also faces charges for high-speed fleeing. Arrest records indicate both Okheda and Sparks have gang affiliation.

brittany stubbs

Brittany Stubbs

The case reminds of the Brittany Stubbs, who lured a local business with the promise of sex. She had planned for her boyfriend and his brother to rob the man, but the robbery went south and the man was shot and killed. All were charged with first-degree felony murder. Stubbs flipped on the co-defendants and got a 25-year sentence, while the brothers were both sentenced to mandatory life in prison. In this case, fortunately nobody was shot, but it is a life felony. In both cases, the defendants were young and some really poor choices effectively ruined their lives and those of others.

Love-triangle Murder Case Results in Conviction and Life Sentence for Wife, after Claims of Threesomes and Alligators

 

denise williams

Denise Williams with Mike, and Brian Winchester (inset)

Mike Williams body was never found after his friend told police that he had drowned in a lake while they were duck hunting back in 2000. At they time, they assumed his body had been eaten by alligators, but his mother never believed it, and never gave up. She even paid for signs and billboards to get the police to investigate, right out of a movie. But the break in the case didn’t come until year later.

Denise Williams collected a $1.75 million dollar life insurance policy payout when her husband was declared dead. His best friend, Brian Winchester, had been fishing with Mike on the Williams’ sixth wedding anniversary, and apparently explained the disappearance well enough that the cops bought it. A few years later, Brian and Denise got married.

It turns out, Denise and Brian had been having an affair- a juicy affair involving threesomes with other parties, trial testimony revealed. She and Brian ultimately got married a few years after Mike’s death, in 2005, and their marriage lasted ten years, falling apart after both of them had additional affairs. Things came to a head in 2016 when Brian, apparently worried that his now-ex-wife would spill the beans about murdering Mike, that he kidnapped Denise at gunpoint. Major backfire, as Brian was now facing a possible life sentence for the armed kidnapping and armed burglary charges. Desperate to make a deal, Brian offered to come clean about Mike’s death. The prosecutors agreed to offer him immunity if cooperated, and 20-years on the kidnapping case. Brian explained that Denise has conspired with him to stage Mike’s death as a boating mishap so they could be together. Brian led authorities to Mike’s remains and charged Denise with murder, conspiracy, and accessory.

The trial was a juicy one, replete with intrigue and affairs. Denise’s defense suggested that Brian was lying to try to save his own skin, and that he had lied repeatedly to investigators. At trial, prosecutors introduced images from one of the threesomes with Brian’s first wife, but they brought her in and she testified that there had been a sexual encounter with she, Brian, and Denise prior to Mike’s disappearance. They also brought in a woman who testified she had had an affair with Brian while he was married to Denise, and that Denise had walked in on them together at one point.

ID Photo

Brian Winchester, via DOC

Ultimately, Brian Winchester’s testimony about Denise’s involvement persuaded the jury, who found Denise Williams guilty at her December trial. The sentencing occurred last week and was mostly perfunctory, as the court was required to impose a mandatory life sentence. Winchester still has most of his sentence in front of him, Florida DOC estimates his release date is not until July, 2036. Denise Williams is not eligible for any form of parole or early release.

Below is a great behind-the-scenes interview with Winchester’s attorney about how he was able to get the immunity deal on Winchester’s kidnapping case- cool insights from an interview with the Law and Crime network. Sounds like the state was leaning hard on the new case to compel him to cooperate on the murder. Also, much of the trial testimony is available online, here.

Croc-wearing Crocodile Jumper Florida Man gets a Year in Jail

Brandon HatfieldCredit: SJSO

Brandon Hatfield: Crocodile Jumper

We introduced you to Brandon Hatfield a few months ago– the croc-wearing guy who jumped into a crocodile pit at a St. Augustine alligator park, and got bitten, was arrested after he was found almost-naked in a lady’s front yard. He got brandon hatfield footsentenced last week, and he got dinged pretty good. Hatfield was sentenced to a year in jail, followed by 2 years of community control (similar to house arrest), in addition to being ordered to pay over $5000 in restitution for the damage he caused. He was charged with trespass and criminal mischief for the alligator park escapade, but he was already on probation for something else, which is probably why he got so much time in jail.

No animals were injured, but Hatfield nearly lost his foot after the incident. Apparently the whole escapade was due to his drug use, so hopefully this will serve as a wake-up call and he will get help for his substance-abuse issues. Court image via Beth Rousseau:

 

And in case you didn’t see the video, here’s a clip with highlights: