The Sheriff’s Office of Pasco County, Florida, harasses people in their own homes using a method they call “predictive policing.” The program has unfolded like a dystopian nightmare for the Pasco County residents it has ensnared, who have been subjected to near-constant police surveillance and harassment. The Sheriff’s Office claims the program’s goal is to predict and prevent crime before it happens by targeting people they suspect may commit crimes in the future, dubbing the approach “intelligence-led policing.” This euphemism may make it seem like there’s thoughtfulness to the approach, but there’s nothing fair or smart about it.
Using a crude computer algorithm, the Sheriff’s Office creates a list of people they think are likely to commit crimes in the future. It places people on the list based on their criminal record, but also based on things that the person may not have been able to control, such as whether they have been suspected of a crime, whether they witnessed a crime or even whether they were a victim of a crime. The Sheriff’s Office calls the people on the list “prolific offenders.”
Then, deputies are sent out to monitor, intimidate and harass people on the list. The deputies are instructed to gather as much information as possible about their targets, and routinely show up unannounced at people’s houses to interrogate them about their friends, their families and their comings and goings. Dalanea Taylor, who was placed on the prolific offender list because she had been incarcerated as a teenager, was harassed by Pasco deputies for years after she was released and had turned her life around.
Code enforcement is a favorite tactic for ensuring compliance during the deputies’ visits. To coerce people into letting the deputies into their home or answering their questions—or sometimes purely to intimidate them—the deputies slap their victims with citations for innocuous offenses like missing house numbers on the mailbox, chickens in the back yard or unmowed grass on the lawn. By design, family members of prolific offenders are ensnared by the program too. Robert Jones had a son on the prolific offender list, and Pasco deputies showed up at his door multiple times a week asking about his son. When the deputies decided that he wasn’t cooperating fully, they wrote him multiple citations for tall grass and other similar property code violations. They even arrested him several times on bogus charges.
Tammy Heilman and Dolly Deegan, who both had sons on the list, also received multiple citations for thousands of dollars in fines for code enforcement violations.
Worse, the motivation of the program is more sinister than merely “fighting crime”: The Sheriff’s Office acknowledged that they want these “problem people” gone. Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco, the architect of the program, boasted that the goal was to predict which residents are likely to commit crimes and then “take them out.” In the words of a former Pasco County deputy, they were under orders to “[m]ake their lives miserable until they move or sue.”
Experts on policing have roundly criticized Pasco County’s practices, pointing out that it is based on junk science and could tend to reinforce racially biased policing practices.
But the Sheriff’s use of predictive policing is not only methodologically shaky; it’s unconstitutional. The government cannot harass you in your home just because it has decided that you or someone you live with might someday do something wrong. That’s why Robert, Dalanea, Tammy, and Dolly have decided to challenge Pasco’s program, alongside the Institute for Justice, in court to affirm the basic principle that there is no such thing as “innocent until predicted guilty.”
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Pasco County’s Intelligence-Led Policing Program
Sheriff Nocco and the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office adopted the Intelligence-Led Policing Program in 2011. Intelligence-led policing, also called predictive policing, is a controversial method that uses algorithms to analyze data from multiple sources in order to predict and theoretically prevent future crimes. Pasco’s program primarily uses “person-based” predictive policing,[i]which attempts to identify and then target people who are “more likely” to commit crimes in the future. According to the Sheriff’s manual, they focus law enforcement efforts on “problem people” because sending those people to prison will “net the largest benefit of crime reduction.” Over the past few years, major cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago have adopted and thenscrapped similar programs because of civil rights concerns and questions about the efficacy of predictive policing.[ii]
The Sheriff’s predictive policing program is vast, but it primarily proceeds in two broad steps. First, the Sheriff’s Office creates a list of 100 people within Pasco County whom they think are most likely to break the law in the future, labeling them “prolific offenders.” Then, deputies are instructed to perform “prolific offender checks” on each person on the list.
The “Prolific Offender” List
To create the list, the Sheriff’s Office uses an algorithm to generate “scores” for people based on their criminal records and other factors from their personal history and relationships. People get points added to their score for past crimes, with more points added based on the severity of the crimes. But the system also adds points for non-convictions, and sometimes for things that people can’t even control. A person’s score increases, for example, for arrests—even when the charges are later dropped. Someone’s score also increases for being a suspect in an ongoing case, for socializing with somebody who is believed to be a member of a gang, for missing a court date, or for appearing in five or more police reports, even if the person was listed as the victim or a witness. As a result, people can be—and have been—placed on the list without ever having been convicted of a crime.
Once the algorithm produces the scores, police analysts go through them to decide which 100 people should be placed on the list. The Sheriff’s Office calls the people placed on the list “prolific offenders.” And it doesn’t discriminate by age: The list includes minors as well as adults. Some teenagers have been placed on the list—and even labeled a “Top 5 Offender”—with only one or two arrests on their record. In fact, deputies from the Sheriff’s Office have acknowledged that the program overwhelmingly identified minors as “prolific offenders.” A former deputy said that when he helped enforce the program, his squad “chased almost exclusively juveniles.”
No one is notified when the Sheriff’s Office decides that a person is a prolific offender. The list has never been published, and there is no way to check if you’re on the list. Even if you could find out whether your name or your child’s name is on the list, there is no way to challenge its inclusion.
The Prolific Offender Checks: “Make their lives miserable until they move or sue”
After the Sheriff’s Office formulates the list of purported prolific offenders, deputies perform periodic face-to-face “prolific offender checks” to continuously monitor the people on the list. These routine “checks” involve repeated, unannounced visits to the homes of people on the list, including minors and their families, at all hours of the day. Deputies have often shown up at the same homes multiple times per week, or sometimes even multiple times per day, to harass prolific offenders and their families. Visits can occur any time of day, even the middle of the night. Asked to leave, deputies refuse—and say they are simply doing their job.
Deputies carry out these surprise visits without a warrant and usually without the homeowners’ consent. In fact, the deputies have no specific reason to show up at people’s homes other than the fact that the Sheriff’s Office placed someone in the household on their list.
The Sheriff’s manual instructs deputies to use the checks to “cultivate information” about prolific offenders and their social networks. They then feed that information about people on the list, their family and their friends back into the program to help the analysts decide who to target next. In practice, this information-gathering directive often translates to deputies demanding entry into the home and aggressively interrogating people—and their families—about what they do with their time, who their friends are and their comings and goings. Their answers to those questions could determine whether they remain on the list. During one visit to a fifteen-year-old target, a deputy told him that “guilty by association” was the “phrase of the day.” The deputy warned that if the teenager spent time with “certain people,” Pasco deputies would keep “coming to your door to have chit-chats with you.”
IJ client Dalanea Taylor, who was placed on the list after she was arrested several times and went to prison when she was a teenager, was harassed for years after she was released. Now 21, Dalanea hasn’t been in trouble since. But that hasn’t stopped Pasco deputies from repeatedly showing up at her home and asking her uncomfortable questions about her friends, about whether she was in a relationship and even about her male friends in the photos she posted on Facebook. Once, in 2018, deputies showed up at her house at 7:32 a.m. on New Year’s Day. Though a family friend begged them to stop harassing Dalanea, the deputies made plans to keep monitoring her for years to come.
Escalating the Checks: “Relentless pursuit, arrest, and prosecution”
If, during a prolific offender check, the deputies decide that someone is being “uncooperative,” they routinely threaten to write people tickets for code enforcement violations—such as tall grass or faded or missing mailbox numbers—unless they speak to the deputies and answer their questions. One former Pasco deputy said they would “literally go out there and take a tape measure and measure the grass if somebody didn’t want to cooperate with us.”
Body cam footage of prolific offender checks show deputies threatening to cite family members for innocuous offenses like missing house numbers if they don’t let them into their home or answer their questions.[iii] Robert Jones received citations for tall grass and other similar property code violations. Deputies failed to notify him that he was being charged with these violations and then, when he failed to appear for a hearing that he was never told was happening, arrested him for failure to appear.
It was a similar story for IJ clients Tammy Heilman and Dolly Deegan, who also each had a son on the prolific offender list. Tammy received tickets during prolific offender checks for missing mailbox numbers and having a cinderblock in her front yard, and a $2,500 fine for having chickens in her backyard. And Dolly was hit with over $3,000 in fines for missing house numbers, tall grass and having construction materials on her property while putting up a fence. Though many of their neighbors’ houses had similar code violations, Robert, Tammy and Dolly—like many others—were targeted for enforcement because they had a family member on the prolific offender list.
Pasco deputies often escalated prolific offender checks into arrests when targets or their family members weren’t willing to “cooperate” with them. Once, during a check on Robert’s son, deputies saw his son and his son’s friend through the window of the Jones’ home. The friend was smoking a cigarette. When the two boys wouldn’t come outside to talk to the deputies, and Robert wouldn’t make them come outside, the deputies arrested Robert for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” and “resisting an officer.” A former Pasco deputy later recalled, “We couldn’t get the kids, so we arrested the dad.”
Including the arrests for missing court hearings about code enforcement fines he didn’t even know about, Robert was arrested five times in total by Pasco deputies. Though the bogus charges never stuck—they were all dropped—the reputational damage was too much to overcome. Before the harassment from Pasco deputies started, Robert dreamed of going to law school and becoming an attorney. But the arrests on his record wrecked his chances of being admitted to the law school, and he had to abandon that dream. He ultimately moved his family out of Pasco County to escape the constant harassment from the Sheriff’s Office. Try as they might, Pasco deputies never succeeded in railroading Robert with their trumped-up allegations. In the end, Robert’s biggest mistake may simply have been moving to Pasco County, where he was arrested so frequently—and for such trivialities—that he had to flee. He has not been arrested since.
In Tammy’s case, after a deputy came to her house asking about her son, she told him that she wouldn’t talk to him without an attorney present and that she had to leave to take her seven-year-old daughter to Girl Scouts. But when she tried to drive away, the deputy followed her down the street, ostensibly because he saw that she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. They pulled her over, ordered her out of the car and yanked her out when she wouldn’t come. They arrested her for, among other things, resisting an officer and battery on a law enforcement officer.
In the police car on the way to jail, the arresting deputy explained the program to Tammy: “Here’s the policy of the agency. I’ll explain it to you so it makes sense. If people themselves or people that live at a house are committing crimes and victimizing the community, then the direction we receive from our Sheriff’s Office, from the top down, is to go out there and for every single violation that person commits, to come down and enforce it upon them.”
Why put so much effort into harassing the people on the list? Simply put, Sheriff Nocco and the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office don’t want these “problem people” in their county. In the manual, deputies are instructed to use the prolific offender checks to inform people on the list of their “options”: They can either become “productive member[s] of society” or “bear the consequences of their criminal ways through relentless pursuit, arrest, and prosecution.” In the words of one former deputy, they were under orders to “make their lives miserable until they move or sue.”
The Court and the Parties
This case is brought in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida. The plaintiffs are Robert A. Jones III, Tammy Heilman, Dalanea Taylor, and Dolly Deegan. The defendant is Sheriff Chris Nocco, in his official capacity as Sheriff of Pasco County.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to be secure on one’s own property and to be free from government harassment in the form of arbitrary and suspicionless predictive policing tactics. Robert, Dalanea, Tammy and Dolly are challenging Sheriff Nocco’s Intelligence-Led Policing Program under the Fourth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment and the First Amendment.
First, the prolific offender checks violate the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment provides special protection for the home, which means that government officials cannot show up at your house and refuse to leave unless they have a warrant, exigent circumstances or consent from the homeowner. But during their prolific offender checks, Pasco deputies do just that. And then deputies interrogate homeowners, even though they know they lack any of those three legitimate reasons. Placing people on a list—based only on the possibility that they might commit crimes in the future—does not create the reasonable suspicion needed for the police to stop someone on the street, let alone to detain someone at their own home.
Law enforcement officers are ordinarily allowed to knock on your door to ask you questions, since any private citizen could do the same thing, but the Fourth Amendment does not allow the police to come to your house with the explicit goal of collecting evidence about you. Nor does it allow government officials to demand to come inside your house, or to stay at your home and continue to question you when you’ve asked them to leave.
Second, the due-process and equal-protection guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment guard against arbitrary or irrational government actions. The Pasco County deputies’ use of code enforcement, or the threat of fines for code violations, during home visits is irrational because they are using it merely as a pretext to harass prolific offenders and their families. In other words, law enforcement officials cannot constitutionally use a legitimate tool (code enforcement) to achieve an illegitimate purpose (harassing and forcing prolific offenders and their families to “cooperate” during prolific offender checks).
Third, by harassing family members and friends of people on the prolific offender list, Pasco deputies have violated their right to freedom of association under the First Amendment and their right not to be punished for someone else’s actions under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Finally, the creation of the prolific offender list violates procedural due process. The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office provides no procedural protections whatsoever to the people on the list: There is no way to challenge their inclusion on the list, and they do not even receive notice that they have been placed on the list. This complete lack of due process is unconstitutional.
The Litigation Team
The Plaintiffs are represented by Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Rob Johnson, Attorneys Ari Bargil and Joshua House, and Constitutional Law Fellow Caroline Grace Brothers.
About the Institute for Justice
The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty and the nation’s leading advocate for property rights. This case is the latest in IJ’s nationwide initiative to secure property owners’ rights against unconstitutional searches and seizures. IJ is currently litigating on behalf of property owners and tenants facing Fourth Amendment violations in Tennessee, Illinois, Washington State, and Pennsylvania.
[ii] https://apnews.com/article/41f75b783d796b80815609e737211cc6; https://www.cbsnews.com/news/los-angeles-police-department-laser-data-driven-policing-racial-profiling-2-0-cbsn-originals-documentary/
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