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 marijuana.
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 plants.
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 denies.
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 cocaine."
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.
Image Caption:Shane Metler said the search put him in a “lose-lose situation, where I either look guilty or give up my rights as a citizen.”
By Rita Farlow, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Saturday, December 24, 2011