J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · March 11, 2021

Pasco County, Florida’s future policing program is as dystopian as it is unconstitutional. Under the guise of “predictive policing,” for the last 10 years the Pasco County sheriff’s department has used a crude computer algorithm to identify and target supposed “future criminals.” Once identified, these supposed “prolific offenders”—many of whom are minors—are relentlessly surveilled and harassed. As a Tampa Bay Times in-depth investigation uncovered, police regularly show up at their homes unannounced and demand entry. If they or their parents don’t cooperate, police write tickets for petty violations, like missing house numbers or having grass that is too tall. As one former Pasco County deputy put it, they were under orders to “make their lives miserable until they move or sue.”

After weathering years of misery, today a group of Pasco residents partnered with the Institute for Justice—a nonprofit public interest law firm—to sue the county and put an end to its predictive policing program once and for all. The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court, argues that the county violated residents’ First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

“Pasco’s program seems like it was ripped from the pages of a dystopian sci-fi novel and not a manual on effective police strategies,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Ari Bargil. “This program isn’t just unethical, it’s patently unconstitutional to use a crude computer calculation to target, harass, fine, and even arrest citizens who have done nothing wrong.”

Robert Jones, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, knows the cruelties of Pasco’s program firsthand. In 2015, Robert’s teenage son had a number of run-ins with the law. That landed his son on Pasco’s “prolific offender” list. Shortly thereafter deputies started to conduct “prolific offender checks.” These warrantless “checks” involved repeated, unannounced visits to Robert’s home at all hours of the day. Robert grew tired of the harassment and stopped cooperating with police. That only made matters worse.

Code enforcement is a common tactic to compel cooperation. One 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.” In Robert’s case, deputies cited him for tall grass, but failed to notify him of the citation. Then, when he failed to appear for a hearing that he was never told was happening, they arrested him for failure to appear.

All told, Robert was arrested five times by Pasco deputies. Although the bogus charges never stuck—they were all dropped—the harassment accomplished its goal: Robert ultimately moved his family out of Pasco County to escape the constant harassment from the Sheriff’s Office.

“I lived through a living hell because a computer program said my family didn’t belong in Pasco,” said Robert Jones. “I only thought this kind of thing happened in movies, not in America. We’ve got rights. And I’m going to stand up for them and shut this program down.”

Predictive policing gained prominence in the late 2000s as a way for police to use data to better allocate resources. Cities including Los Angeles and Chicago experimented with predictive policing but have subsequently scrapped their programs because of civil rights and effectiveness concerns. In most cases, police departments used data to identify geographic areas in need of additional resources. But Pasco took it one step further by using data to target specific individuals.

“Pasco defends its program as a crime fighting tool,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Robert Johnson. “But in America, there is no such thing as ‘innocent until predicted guilty.’ The government cannot harass people at their homes just because it thinks they might commit some unspecified future crime.”

Robert is joined in the lawsuit by Tammy Heilman, Dalanea Taylor, and Dolly Deegan. Like Robert, their families have all suffered unconscionable harassment by the Pasco deputies. Their lawsuit alleges that the county’s prolific offender checks violate the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures. Beyond that, it argues that the due-process and equal-protection guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment guard against arbitrary or irrational government actions. In this case, law enforcement officials cannot use a legitimate law, like code enforcement, to achieve an illegitimate purpose, like harassing and forcing prolific offenders and their families to “cooperate” during prolific offender checks.

For nearly three decades, the Institute for Justice has represented homeowners and others to stand up for their constitutional rights. Earlier this month, for instance, IJ filed a lawsuit against the city of Lantana, Florida, after it fined a homeowner more than $100,000 for parking violations. In Pagedale, Missouri, IJ won a class action lawsuit and shut down the city’s program of using fines and fees for trivial issues to raise revenue for the city. And in Dunedin, Florida, IJ filed a lawsuit on behalf of homeowner who was driven into foreclosure after the city fined him nearly $30,000 for having grass that was too long.

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