The Lee County Sheriff’s Office recently released aerial footage from this weekend, when a man fled from deputies, wrecked his stolen vehicle, and jumped off the Edison Bridge into the Caloosahatchee River. He survived the fall, and was fished out by deputies. The footage is dramatic.
LCSO says Bryan Gray was driving a van that had been stolen. Now, Grand Theft Auto is a third degree felony. In Florida, that has a maximum penalty of five years. However, unless someone’s record is really bad, it does not generally score out to mandatory prison time. Since Gray fled, he’s also facing charges of fleeing, with a high speed and property damage enhancement, adding on a second degree felony. That takes his maximum penalty up to 15 years, and greatly increases his scoresheet that could lead to a minimum permissible sentence that is more likely to require prison. Plus, his stunt landed him in a hospital and it could have been much worse.
Another case is exemplar of the coverup far exceeding the underlying offense. This week, Courtney Gainey was sentenced in the death of 14-year-old Allana Staiano. She pled out a few weeks ago to charges of Leaving the Scene of an Accident involving death- literally her crime was fleeing the scene. Had she stayed, it may have merely been an accident and a civil traffic ticket. As it is, she was charged with a first degree felony, exposing her to up to 30 years in prison. The charge carries a four-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, but the minimum was thrown out the window as the judge maxed her out at 30 years. It was suggested that she had been drinking that night, but even if she had been drinking to the point of impairment, a DUI Manslaughter is a less serious offense than leaving the scene. Dui causing death is a second degree felony, again with a maximum 15-year sentence. Her flight from the scene directly exposed her to twice as much time, and the notoriety of the case likely contributed to such a harsh sentence for a first time offense.
Once more the flight, or the cover-up, ends up being more serious than whatever offense one is trying to avoid.
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.
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.
LCSO, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office is planning a DUI checkpoint this weekend, in addition to saturation patrols targeting impaired drivers. Everybody be safe out there, get an Uber or a cab, but don’t drink and drive!
If you have any questions, be sure to speak to an experienced Defense attorney.
You can see from the photo, multiple agencies are involved- FMPD, State Attorney, LSCO, FBI and Collier Cty SO. He was identified as a subject early, but it is unknown yet why action was taken now. FMPD is still asking more people to come forward if they have details.
Lee County ran an undercover prostitution sting over the weekend and picked up a hooker… Brianna Hooker. There were 14 more arrests from the operation, in addition to Ms. Hooker. The undercover detective invited her to a location where he was staying, whereupon she agreed to have sex with him, then asked if she could smoke up before she performed for him. She has an extensive history of drugs and theft related offenses, and is facing drug possession charges as well as a violation of her earlier probation for this new charge. As is so often the case, the drug abuse likely led to the theft and prostitution as she tried to feed her addiction. That’s likely the case for several of the co-defendants from this operation.
This came out a couple days ago, but I haven’t had a chance to write it up. A deputy with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office was dismissed after a complaint about excessive force. The internal affairs investigation actually cited him for several things, including not being forthcoming in his report of the incident. He pulled a woman out of her car at gunpoint, while the car was still in gear, and she ended up being dragged along side it for a moment. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.
While this isolated incident pales in comparison to the recent wave of suspensions after the city-commissioned audit of Fort Myers PD, it is nonetheless disturbing. The encouraging thing is that we are not talking about a cover, rather that the deputy had consequences for his actions. Sheriff Mike Scott has shown time and again that he will act swiftly to punish misbehavior to protect the reputation of his department, particularly when there is any indication of dishonesty from his team. That’s the first step in building a strong reputation and confidence in the community.
Also troubling is that the woman’s attorney indicated to NBC2’s Jaclyn Bevis that there were not made aware that another witness had come forward, nor that there was an internal affairs investigation on the case. That sort of information is known as “Brady” material: which must be turned over to the defense. The failure to turn that over in discovery is likely a violation, and could result in the conviction being thrown out. The woman involved did get a reduced charge from DUI to reckless driving, which was already probably due to the arresting deputy’s aggressive behavior.
LCSO Deputy Cox noticed that the basketball hoop where some small kids on his beat liked to play was in disrepair. On his own time, he found an old hoop, fixed it up for the kids, and even got them a new net! Great work deputy- always nice to share some good news of cops going above and beyond the normal duty!
Former Lee County Deputy Michael Ronga was sentenced this week to six years in Federal prison (he also worked for Fort Myers PD, at an earlier time). He was convicted at trial a few weeks ago for beating an robbing man he had given a ride while he was on duty in his patrol vehicle. Prosecutors pushed for 10 years, which was in line with sentencing guidelines, though the court opted to go below the guideline sentence and he was only given the six years. His attorneys argued for home confinement. The sentence was surprisingly forgiving, in light of the breach of trust to the community for it to happen by an on-duty officer.
Michael Ronga, who was charged with robbing his victim while on duty when he was a Lee County deputy has been found guilty this afternoon in Federal court. Per the SAO, who joined the US Attorney’s office on the prosecution, he was convicted on both counts, and remanded into custody, sentencing will be set at a later date.