Prosecutors are dropping or reducing felony drug charges against more than a dozen people who bought Oxycontin from an undercover detective, after learning that the police informant who set up the drug deals had sex with some of the defendants.
Defense attorneys claim the informant had more than just sex with their clients. They say he lavished them with gifts, dinners, drinks and took one on a vacation — allegations that the informant denies — before luring them into buying drugs from police.
The informant crossed ethical and legal boundaries in what is already a murky world, defense attorneys say, where people involved in the drug trade work with undercover officers in seedy bars and strip clubs to target both sellers and buyers of drugs.
Among the issues raised:
• Having sex with the suspects in the cases constitutes entrapment and violates the defendants’ due process rights, according to Florida case law cited by defense lawyers. Also, any sexual relationship between an informant and a target violates the rules of nearly every law enforcement agency, federal, state or local. The informant admitted in interviews with the Herald-Tribune that he had oral sex with several of the women before he convinced them to arrange drug buys between dealers and undercover officers.
• Defense attorneys say the informant, a married father of two from Charlotte County, spent taxpayer money on drinks, lap dances and food to lure in dancers from strip clubs who he then convinced to aid him in setting up drug buys for detectives.
• The informant says the Sarasota Police Department detective assigned to monitor his activity, Robert Armstrong, never asked whether he was having sex with the targets.
The informant got paid per arrest:
After being paid $4,025, usually $325 per arrest, for the two and a half years he worked with the department, the informant has since been disavowed by Sarasota police. He says Det. Armstrong, his former handler, empathized but offered little help.
“The music stopped. They all grabbed chairs, and I’m the last man standing,” the informant told the Herald-Tribune.
And allegations that the informant commited sexual misconduct against a minor in 2008 failed to raise any flags:
In 2008, while employed at a private school in the area, the informant was arrested for three counts of mental child abuse of a student. The girl initially told police that he pressured her for sex, but she refused. Prosecutors later declined to file charges, and the case has since been expunged.
That same month, Sarasota County Sheriff’s deputies arrested the informant for violating a temporary protection order related to the case.
These charges too were later dropped.
The Sarasota police, of course, brought in cash seizures and arrests through this sting operation:
On Feb. 8, 2011, Williams drove Smalls to a parking lot on Beneva Road in Sarasota, thinking she was going to meet with the informant’s brother.
She handed Det. Armstrong $3,250 for 500 pills of Oxycodone for Smalls. Armstrong gave her $250 and 20 pills for brokering the deal. A police team swooped in. She and Smalls were arrested.
Absurdly, the informant points the finger at the greed of his victims:
The informant defended his choice of targets.
“These are not the cream of our society,” he said of Williams and other targets. “These are drug dealers. I never pressured or yelled at anyone. The lure of money enticed them.”
This system has been in place for over a decade, bringing millions of dollars for Sarasota police. In October 2003, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported:
Dealers from as far away as England, Venezuela and Panama are being lured to Sarasota to buy illegal drugs from undercover detectives posing as dealers.
Police arrest the dealers and seize the cash and vehicles left behind.
Since 2001, more than $1.3 million has flowed into the department under federal and state forfeiture laws that allow police to keep money and valuables seized from suspected dealers. Sarasota police say the drug deals take dangerous people off the street, and the cash supplements the police budget and helps some charitable causes. Much of the money was used to perpetuate the undercover operations and pay for law enforcement conferences and supplies. According to a Sarasota Herald-Tribune review:
About $240,000 went to pay for conferences for officers, including training trips to Orlando, Panama City Beach and Las Vegas.
Since 2001, a confidential informant has been paid about $115,000 to help with the operations. The department has given $100,000 to several other informants.