NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. - A federal lawsuit contends that a Tampa Bay area sheriff is violating people’s rights through an intelligence-based policing program that improperly targets and harasses them. The sheriff rejects those claims.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday in Tampa federal court claims the Pasco Sheriff’s Office "punishes people for crimes they have not committed and may never commit" — a practice dubbed predictive policing.
Sheriff Chris Nocco’s office called the description false and said its Intelligence-Led Policing program is guided by a person’s criminal history or a school student’s characterization as being at risk.
"Far from being a predictive policing program that focuses on future crimes that someone may commit, the prolific offender program and the at-risk youth program are focused on serving our community," a Pasco sheriff’s statement said.
The lawsuit was filed by the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that represents four Pasco County residents who have encountered the sheriff’s program. The lawsuit’s goal is to end it.
In response to the lawsuit, Rep. Matt Gaetz called on Gov. Ron DeSantis to remove Nocco.
"I don't care that this is being done by a GOP Sheriff," Gaetz tweeted. "Its [sic] awful to harass citizens because you think they may commit crimes, hoping to 'make their lives miserable.'"
In an email Thursday, sheriff’s spokeswoman Amanda Hunter said the office will "look forward to defending any lawsuits" in court but not through the media.
The lawsuit claims the residents were harassed or arrested by deputies who were using the program, which analyzes arrest histories and other data to predict which residents are most likely to commit crimes in the future.
One plaintiff, Tammy Heilman, said she was arrested twice after deputies came to her house in 2016 to ask about a dirt bike that her son may have bought with stolen money.
What followed was a traffic stop that led to Heilman being charged with several things, including battery on a law enforcement officer. She was later arrested for opening her screen door into a deputy’s chest and spent 76 days in jail.
The lawsuit contends the program’s aim is to make what it calls targeted persons "miserable until they move or sue," quoting a former Pasco County deputy who is not named. The lawsuit says the program violates several constitutional rights.
"The government cannot punish you — or your friends or your family — for crimes you haven’t committed," the lawsuit says.
The Pasco sheriff’s office, in its lengthier statement, said the program is modeled after one adopted in the United Kingdom in the 1990s and that the idea is not to target anyone for harassment.
"It is the goal of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office to have a positive impact on these individuals and our community," the statement says.
The sheriff’s statement specifically mentions the 2002 film "Minority Report," which starred Tom Cruise as chief of a "precrime" police bureau that arrests people before any crime is committed based on information provided by psychics.
The program, the sheriff’s office says in part, is not "in any way, shape or form the ideals or implementations projected in the film ‘Minority Report.’"
A central piece of that movie is the idea that some of the psychics disagree with the majority on whether a specific person will become a criminal.
Other jurisdictions have tackled similar issues. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, last year scrapped for financial reasons a controversial program called "Pred-Pol" that sought to predict where property crimes would occur. Critics said it focused disproportionately on Black and Hispanic communities.
The Florida lawsuit contends the Pasco program violates constitutional amendments that protect rights of association and due process, and against unreasonable searches and seizures. It asks a judge to end the program and award each plaintiff $1, in addition to attorney fees and costs.