It's not every day you receive a letter from the local police department congratulating you on your acceptance into an exclusive program. Such is the story shared by several residents in Pasco County, Florida, a community in the Tampa area. One problem: None of the recipients applied.
"We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected to participate in a Prolific Offender Program," reads a letter from the Pasco County Sheriff's Office (PCSO). "Research indicates that barriers to successful living may involve struggles with mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, finding a job, or several other challenges many people face on a daily basis. It is possible you have struggled with some of these issues. If so, please know the Pasco Sheriff's Office is committed to support you in overcoming these challenges through this program."
The "support" it offers, originally detailed in an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times, includes sending cadres of cops to people's homes, where officers show up unannounced, harassing them and their family members, performing warrantless searches on their homes, and trying to nab them on petty offenses, like having grass that is too tall. The lucky winners were "selected as a result of an evaluation of your recent criminal behavior," according to the PCSO, "using an unbiased, evidence-based risk assessment designed to identify prolific offenders in our community."
In other words, the program is ostensibly trying to keep people out of trouble and deter future criminal behavior before anything goes dramatically awry. That sounds well-intentioned on the surface. But its "relentless pursuit" of community members has ruthlessly entangled people with the state—including targets' family and friends—trampling over their Fourth Amendment rights in the process, says a recent lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm.
Their clients received good news this week: Though the PCSO sought to have the suit dismissed on a litany of different grounds, a federal judge struck each down in a ruling issued on Wednesday, allowing the claim to proceed.
"The Fourth Amendment protects the right to be safe and secure in your person and property," says Ari Bargil, an attorney on the suit. "This program violates that right," he notes, "because it allows and requires Pasco County Sheriff's Office deputies to approach people at their home, harass them, refuse to leave, and in some instances demand entry without a warrant. These are obvious and clear Fourth Amendment violations."
Sheriff Chris Nocco, the brains behind the program, openly admitted that it's intended to do more than what the congratulatory letter implies: He hopes it will "take them out" of the community, he said, with one of his former employees conceding that their job was to "make their lives miserable until they move or sue."
Robert Jones, a plaintiff in the suit, had officers show up to his residence without warrants on multiple occasions. They came in groups as large as 18 deputies at a time, "banging on the windows and yelling at his young daughters while they were hiding inside under the bed," the lawsuit says. PCSO officers deemed him uncooperative and, in retaliation, cited him for property code violations—missing numbers on the mailbox, a trailer on the property, that pesky long grass. Failing to tell him they'd issued the citations, they arrested him three times over the course of six months because he didn't show up in court, as he wasn't aware he had been summoned.
But Jones wasn't even an intended target under the program. It was his son officers were monitoring. On one evening, they arrived at the residence, searched his room without a warrant, seized sandwich bags, and later arrested Jones' son, claiming the baggies came back positive for "trace amounts of marijuana."
Dalanea Taylor, another plaintiff in the suit, has a similar story, although she was actually an enrollee in the PCSO program. In her teenage years, Taylor committed a series of property crimes and was incarcerated from age 15–17, having been released in March 2017. She has not been in trouble with the law since, despite the PCSO's consistent attempts to change that.
Over the course of several years, deputies would arrive at Taylor's home unannounced, day and night, banging on the door, interrogating her and her roommates, and insisting that they be allowed to perform warrantless searches of the property. Her landlord, who was not a part of the program, received a code violation for trash in the yard after declining to indulge deputies on one of their visits.
In that vein, the PCSO's predictive policing model is a solution in search of a problem—except it just creates more problems. "The supposed purpose of the program is to keep people from committing crimes," says Bargil, "but what this ultimately accomplishes is an erosion of trust between people and police, and the continued involvement of people within the criminal justice system." Instead of turning people away from some future vision of a purported life of crime, it conjures that crime. And it arguably diverts resources away from things that actually matter.
"If we are ultimately successful in court, it doesn't mean that the Pasco County Sheriff's Office won't be able to keep its community safe," adds Bargil. "It'll only mean that it will have to keep its community safe within the parameters of the Fourth Amendment, just like every other town in America."