State prison K-9 unit under investigation over illegal arrests

ORLANDO, Fla. — Debra White was visiting a family member at Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala when the Department of Corrections K-9 Unit conducted a search of her vehicle, which is routine.

According to an arrest report from the Marion County Sheriff's Office, the dog could smell drugs in the car. White's mother was also in the car.

A correctional officer identified as Officer Romig in the arrest report states he got verbal and written consent from White's mother to search the car because she was the registered owner.

During the search, Officer Romig found a pack of cigarettes in the center console and passenger seat. Inside one pack of cigarettes, the officer says he found seven white pills with an inscription of "406" on one side, later identified as buprenorphine hydrochloride, according to Romig's internet search at the time she was detained.

White insisted she had a prescription for the pain pills, but not in her possession. She was arrested and booked into the Marion County Jail and charged with possession of buprenorphine and introducing contraband into a state correctional institution.

The state declined to file charges related to the pain pills, but White was just sentenced earlier this month to three years' probation for the felony charge related to introducing contraband into a state prison.

It turns out her arrest may have been illegal. 9 Investigates has learned more than 100 state prison visitors may have been illegally detained by Department of Corrections K-9 officers and subsequently arrested on felony charges related to introducing contraband in state prisons across the state.

The problem with White's arrest is that the DOC K-9 handlers don't have the authority or law enforcement powers to detain.

9 Investigates obtained a copy of a letter that has been sent to sheriffs across the state because the issue of the illegal arrests  was uncovered during a routine audit that's still ongoing.

The Inspector General's Office wrote in the letter: ""Department K-9 handlers are not certified law enforcement officers, and they do not have authority to detain or arrest," and even if they do find drugs, they can't transfer that probable for an arrest to a responding deputy under what's known as the "fellow officer rule."

The DOC K-9 handlers have been routinely detaining visitors, conducting searchers and then calling local sheriff's deputies to effect an arrest.

"When someone asserts color of authority in a uniform, you can bet, the average citizen believes, oh they're law enforcement, they have the power, " WFTV legal analyst Bill Sheaffer said.

A spokesperson with the Department of Corrections told 9 Investigates two officers have been arrested so far as part of the active and ongoing investigation. However, a state attorney has declined to file charges against one of them.

The one who is facing charges, Tyler Brown, was arrested in Madison, Florida, in July.

According to an arrest report 9 Investigates obtained, he was caught on a body camera asserting that he was a member of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement while detaining another employee accused of trying to smuggle contraband onto prison property.

The Department of Corrections confirms 135 people may have been affected by the illegal detainments and arrests.

In Central Florida, the inspector general has sent letters alerting sheriffs in Marion and Lake counties. Attached to the letters are a list of cases that may be impacted.

In some cases, prosecutors have already dropped charges. In White's case, that hasn't happened. "Those individuals that maybe have been prosecuted and pled, they're subject to having those prosecutions set aside," Sheaffer said.

The Department of Corrections has struggled to keep contraband out of its prisons. Though a 9 Investigates report in 2017 found correctional officers were part of the problem. Investigative reporter Daralene Jones reviewed lengthy investigative reports for the investigation.

One officer was allegedly caught smuggling in flip phones at Jefferson Correctional, using a false bottom on her boots and collected more than $20,000 from selling the contraband to inmates. Another sold about 15 phones per week at $400 each, after smuggling them inside of a prison.

Just this year, department records show visitors have been caught with mostly drugs, but also cellphones and accessories.

Their visitation rights are always terminated and sometimes the inmates they were attempting to visit are tossed in solitary confinement as punishment, according to sources.

"It looks like DOC has a major problem that they better get under control," Sheaffer said.

In a statement, Secretary Mark Inch said he is "committed to reviewing the Office of Inspector General's report once it concludes and determining if any policy adjustments need to be made."

The full results of the ongoing investigation are expected to be released in the next 4-6 weeks.

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