November 17, 2021
Business opinion Policy

Lawsuit: Florida County Uses ‘Predictive Policing’ To Arrest Residents For Petty Code Violations

Minority Report was supposed to be a warning, not an instruction manual. 

But in Pasco County, Florida, the sheriff’s office has created an “Intelligence-led Policing Section” designed to identify, target, and prevent “prolific offenders.” Though the county claims its section is focused on “the who of crime, the small percentage of criminals who commit the vast majority of crime,” people with as few as one or two burglary charges have found themselves targeted. 

Just as concerning, under a larger strategy of “focused deterrence,” deputies are effectively given carte blanche to relentlessly harass “prolific offenders,” as well as their friends and family members, with frequent, unannounced visits at any time, day or night. Today, Pasco County’s program has 30 staffers, a $2.8 million budget, and “ensnared almost 1,000 people,” with teens comprising at least one-tenth of those surveyed, an in-depth investigation by the Tampa Bay Times found last fall. 

Compared to the precogs tasked with preventing murder in the movie version of Minority Report, Pasco County’s predictive policing program is much pettier. Once someone has been designated a “prolific offender,” they (or anyone they’re close with) can be ticketed for minor code violations for being seen as uncooperative. One woman was fined $2,500 for having chickens in her backyard, while another was fined $3,000 for tall grass and missing house numbers. 

As one former captain recalled, “We would literally go out there and take a tape measure and measure the grass if somebody didn’t want to cooperate with us.” Failure to pay those fines could even trigger an arrest warrant, further perpetuating a vicious cycle of surveillance and enforcement. The goal, as another former deputy put it, was to “make their lives miserable until they move or sue.”

So in March, they sued. 

Partnering with the Institute for Justice, four Pasco County residents filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming the county’s predictive policing program used code enforcement as a pretext “to coerce, intimidate, and harass property owners,” which violated their constitutional rights. Since deputies typically don’t obtain warrants when they target a prolific offender or their family and friends, the lawsuit asserts that Pasco County has created a “systematic practice of unconstitutional searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.”

In turn, that repeated harassment and targeted code enforcement “directly imposes a penalty for an individual’s association with a targeted person,” which infringes on the First Amendment freedom of association.

A court ruling declaring the Pasco County program to be unconstitutional would have major ramifications. Nationwide, more than 150 police departments, sheriff’s offices, and other law enforcement agencies use predictive policing techniques and software, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“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.” 

For their part, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office has denied that their program was in any way inspired by Philip K. Dick. Soon after the lawsuit was filed, one spokeswoman told the Associated Press that the program is not “in any way, shape or form the ideals or implementations projected in the film Minority Report.”

The sheriff’s office instead points to its manual detailing its “Intelligence-led Policing” program. As the manual argues, law enforcement could have “a more significant impact on crime if the criminal justice system focused on the most serious and prolific criminals who have the largest impact on our crime picture,” a focus that would mark “a complete departure from the random, unfocused, whack-a-mole policing style of the past.”

Yet there are major shortcomings with how Pasco County targets “prolific offenders.” For starters, the algorithm doles out points for arrests and “suspicions for criminal offenses,” even if neither ultimately resulted in a conviction, much less a criminal charge. Under the county’s scoring system, “additional weight is awarded” for a bevy of factors, including if a person has any gang affiliations, parole and probation violations, or failed to appear in court, as well as the time elapsed between offenses.

But perversely, being a frequent victim of crime or a witness is also given “additional weight” and, like the other factors, increases the chances that a victim or witness would be listed as a prolific offender. 

Just as bizarrely, the county explicitly states in its manual that “the purpose behind identifying prolific offenders is not necessarily to identify how bad a person’s criminal history is,” while “more emphasis is placed on how often an individual re-offends.” In other words, the county is more likely to target someone suspected of committing multiple petty misdemeanors in a short period than someone who has committed severe felonies over their lifetime. 

Moreover, the county’s targeting schema raises significant due process concerns under the Fourteenth Amendment. According to the IJ lawsuit, people targeted under Pasco County’s program are “never advised” beforehand that they could be potential targets for surveillance, nor are they given “any opportunity to be heard or to otherwise contest their classification.” And once listed, targeted residents can’t request being removed. 

Those targeted in Pasco County must endure a face-to-face “prolific offender check” at least once every three months, though some residents have been visited multiple times per day by law enforcement. Since September 2015, the sheriff’s office has conducted more than 12,500 checks, the Tampa Bay Times reported. 

During those checks, targeted residents are reminded “that because of their criminal activity, they have been identified for an enhanced focus by the Pasco Sheriff’s Office and they have only two options.” For the first option, deputies give out a palm card with community resources to encourage people to “stop committing crimes and become a productive member of society.”

As an alternative, those listed as “prolific offenders” are routinely targeted under a “focused deterrence” strategy. In Pasco County, that manifests as the “relentless pursuit, arrest, and prosecution” of prolific offenders, coupled with a “zero-tolerance arrest policy.” “If the offender does not feel the pressure,” the county’s manual warns, “the strategy will have no impact.”

“Pasco defends its program as a crime fighting tool,” said Institute for Justice Senior 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.”

Or to quote Precrime Commissioner John Anderton, “If the system can survive only by imprisoning innocent people, then it deserves to be destroyed.”