By Noah Pransky
PINELLAS COUNTY - Despite findings by 10 Investigates that officers and deputies may not have followed federal guidelines in trying to lure sexual predators during a recent sting, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office tells 10 News no discipline or action is expected.
The agency is also refusing to cooperate with 10 Investigates' public records requests for emails pertaining to the sting. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office (PCSO) rejected a request for emails that did not pertain to open cases.
But PCSO said every email exchange from its four-day operation -- including from men who showed no interest in sex with underage children -- remained an open investigation, with arrests or prosecutions imminent. An agency spokesperson said there were no plans to close the cases anytime soon.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Polk Co. Sheriff's Office, and Clearwater Police Department also refused to provide requested chat logs pertaining to cases that resulted in no arrest or charges.
The January sting, dubbed "Operation: Home Alone," resulted in 35 arrests. But guidelines for the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force instruct undercover officers to "allow the investigative target to set the tone, pace, and subject matter of the online conversation." An alleged email chain (PDF) obtained by 10 Investigates indicates law enforcement may be willing to push past boundaries to get "targets" to talk about sex with children.
Local defense attorneys tell 10 Investigates that "there's no question [law enforcement] blurs the lines." But the state attorney's office in Pinellas County failed to return multiple requests for comment.
And while the Pinellas Co. Sheriff's Office, Pasco County Sheriff's Office, Clearwater Police Department, and FDLE all maintain every communication between officers and civilians is part of an open investigation, a spokesperson for the St. Petersburg Police Department contradicted the claim saying, "it's not uncommon to engage in a large number of conversations with a number of individuals, most of which never rises to the level of criminal conduct. Consequently, copies of those conversations (are not saved)."
Several agencies have told 10 Investigates their cases remain open because the agencies may again pursue some of the men who responded to their "casual encounters" ads, but ultimately were not arrested in the January sting.
A similar sting, conducted by the Manatee Co. Sheriff's Office (MCSO) called "Operation Green Shepherd III," resulted in similar refusals to turn over records.
An attorney for the MCSO told 10 Investigates that emails from individuals who responded to the "adult encounter"-type ads, even if they did not show interest in sex with minors, were exempt from public record laws because they were still considered part of "active" cases.
The attorney said the cases were still considered "active" investigations because "MCSO has a reasonable good faith anticipation of securing an arrest or prosecution in the foreseeable future. In those cases where an arrest was made, prosecution is pending."
10 Investigates will continue to fight for access to public records.