NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. — Armed Pasco County deputies have handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for county code violations, such as tall grass, trash and broken down cars on the lawn.
The sheriff says the controversial new program is cleaning up neighborhood crime, but critics blast the initiative as a way for police to conduct illegal searches.
“It’s overreach and it’s harassment,” said Darlene Deegan.
Pasco County Sheriff’s deputies recently went to Deegan’s Hudson home on a tip that her son might be hiding in a camper in her backyard.
When they arrived, he wasn’t there, but deputies reported evidence of other offenses. They issued Deegan $2,750 in code violation citations, including fines for debris, no house numbers and a camper set up in her yard.
But deputies didn’t have a warrant to search the property and Deegan wasn’t there at the time.
Body cam footage shows code enforcement
“I have got no trespassing, keep out signs all over the property,” said Deegan.
Deegan said her son, who has prior felony convictions, has not lived with her for several years.
She says the Sheriff’s Office should have been aware he was staying in a homeless shelter at the time of the search and that Deegan had forbidden him from coming onto her property.
“I’m guilty of having that son,” said Deegan. “But that doesn’t mean you have a right to harass me. If there’s no criminal activity, you’re not supposed to go to law abiding citizens and punish them.”
Bodycam footage of their search of Deegan’s property shows deputies using a plastic lawn chair to climb over a four-foot fence.
“We got a ton of violations here,” said one deputy took photos of the county code violations on his cell phone.
The deputies can also be heard discussing whether photos taken in the backyard would be allowed in court.
“If it gets dismissed, it gets dismissed,” said a deputy in the footage.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said he started his Enhanced Code Enforcement Program in 2014 to target drug dealers, slumlords and absentee landlords.
“We’re going after areas where we know there’s crime going on, there’s been complaints, the neighbors are upset,” said Nocco.
Deputies target suspicious activity
Pasco’s two code enforcement officers, corporals Mark Celeste and Pedro Ojeda, recently took ABC Action News I-Team Reporter Adam Walser on one of their patrols.
People scattered from a mobile home in Holiday when deputies arrived. One man rode off on a bicycle. Another pushed a shopping cart containing his belongings.
“Whatever’s happening here, it needs to stop,” said Celeste.
The I-Team observed from the street as deputies handed out citations for trash and tall grass.
“If you don’t show up to court, you’re going to have a warrant,” Celeste warned the homeowner as she shouted profanities at him.
A few blocks away, deputies stopped at another home they have fined three times already. Homeowner Crystal Barrow was hit with $17,000 in fines last month.
“It doesn’t look that bad compared to other people’s stuff,” said Barrow.
Barrow says she believes she’s being singled out, because deputies aren’t ticketing her neighbors for their code violations.
“I think it’s harassment because it’s becoming so much when I’m trying to fix the problem,” she said.
Deputies say her neighbors reported her home to the sheriff’s office because of suspicious activity.
Code fines can become liens
Since 2014, deputies have issued more than 4,500 code enforcement citations. That’s three times the number handed out by regular county code enforcement officers in Pasco County. It also resulted in more than $600,000 in fines collected by the Pasco County Clerk of Courts.
Nocco said none of that money directly goes to his office.
“Eventually the fines will reach a point where they exceed the value of the property,” said former judge and law professor Jeff Swartz.
The fines can become liens if violators don’t correct them, which can result in the seizure of troubled properties.
Swartz says deputies can legally enforce county codes on property without search warrants, since code enforcement doesn’t directly involve criminal charges.
But he says it can often be a fine line.
“If what they’re doing is really intended as a law enforcement issue as opposed to a property issue, that’s when it goes too far,” said Swartz.
Unlike the county code enforcers, the code violations citations deputies hand out require a court appearance – even if the homeowner has never been previously cited for violating county codes.
And a judge can issue criminal arrest warrants for violators who don’t show up to court.
“One of the best tools in a law enforcement officer’s toolbox is using code enforcement,” said retired Pinellas Park Police Officer Donna Saxer, who won a national community policing award in 1996.
“This is a way community policing used to be done years ago and I am seeing more and more that this is what they’re turning back to,” said Saxer.
But she warns it can backfire.
“It’s a give and take,” said Saxer. “If you come in and hammer them all the time, that’s not going to work.”
Deputies make seizure at convenience store
On the day ABC Action News observed code enforcement deputies on the job, they issued citations to a Hudson convenience store for selling water pipes, scales and grinders – all because the store didn’t have a sign at the entrance banning customers under age 18
“They say we don't have signs on front door. We have sign here. We have a sign on that door also,” a store clerk told ABC Action News.
Deputies seized the questionable items and issued citations – a $500 fine for each of the 236 items.
All that adds up to more than $118,000 – a fine which deputies acknowledge could put the store out of business.
“They know what they’re doing,” said Nocco, defending the fines. “They’re making money off drug addicts. They’re destroying that community.”
Darlene Deegan said she’s not destroying her community and plans to fight her citations in court.
“I’ve never been arrested in my life and for them to do this to me, I think it’s got to stop,” said Deegan.
Nocco defended his program and denied criticism that code enforcement could lead to warrantless searches.
“You can see everything our deputies are doing out there," said Nocco. “They are true professionals. I care more about the people in that neighborhood that have to put up with the B.S. of that house than I do about those people in that house.”
Nocco vowed to continue cleaning up neighborhoods through code enforcement.
“If you don’t take care of your property, if you’re selling drug paraphernalia, if you’re ruining our community, those code enforcement deputies are going to arrive at your house,” said Nocco.
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