Cell Picture Of Undercover Officer Sparks Arrest
By Michael A. Scarcella of Sarasota Herald Tribune
Published: March 16, 2008
Randy Dean Sievert drew ire from Manatee County sheriff's deputies as he aimed his cell phone camera at undercover investigators executing a search warrant in his neighborhood.
A deputy confronted Sievert, demanding that he destroy any photos of investigators and their vehicles.
Sievert was not a welcome observer of the drug raid. Authorities called him a "known drug dealer" based on a couple of past arrests. Taking photos of undercover officers jeopardized their lives, deputies said.
Sievert refused to remove his hands from his pockets and step away from his car after he was confronted about the pictures. Deputies forced him to the ground. The 20-year-old unemployed Bradenton man was arrested on a misdemeanor obstruction charge.
Investigators could not access the images on the phone. Sievert "finally" gave up a code that allowed deputies to find and destroy a photo that showed two undercover vehicles, according to reports. The phone is in evidence but not the photograph.
Sievert's obstruction case is attracting criticism in the legal community. Some defense attorneys say Sievert was unlawfully arrested and forced to destroy a photograph authorities had no grounds to erase.
"While they may not have liked what he was doing, it was not against the law," said Sievert's attorney, Charles M. Britt III.
If the police do not want undercover vehicles identified, they should not bring the cars and trucks when they execute search warrants, Britt said.
The vehicles are nondescript, blending in to allow officers to secretly monitor suspected criminal activity. Undercover officers routinely wear masks in public when participating in searches.
Britt filed court papers challenging the arrest, and a hearing is scheduled for next month. Ultimately, the state could decide Sievert did not commit a crime and abandon the case.
But an assistant state attorney, addressing the merits of the charge at a hearing Thursday, called Sievert's photograph "egregious."
Prosecutor Angel Colonneso argued to keep Sievert locked up on a probation violation charge. Sievert was on probation in a drug case when he was arrested on the obstruction charge in late February in the 6000 block of Seventh Street Court West.
Sievert refused a lawful command to erase the photographs, Colonneso said. That "reasonable request" was to protect undercover officers.
Assistant public defender Jennifer Joynt-Sanchez called the arrest "beyond belief." Joynt-Sanchez, representing Sievert in court, said Sievert had a right to resist unlawful police detention.
Joynt-Sanchez wanted Sievert released from jail on his own recognizance. But Circuit Judge Debra Johnes Riva ordered Sievert held.
Obstructing the execution of a search warrant is a rare charge. In most cases the charge is applied to a person who is at a house -- and connected to the criminal investigation -- during the raid.
Britt said he is not aware of any law that makes it a crime to snap a photo of an undercover officer in the performance of his or duty.
State laws allow law enforcement agencies to black out the names of undercover officers in police reports, protecting their identity. But their names are often included on witness lists for trial. The officers cannot hide their faces in court.
At a recent trial in Bradenton featuring two undercover detectives, the prosecution sought and received a court order blocking the media from taking pictures of the officers in court. But, during breaks, the detectives congregated outside the courthouse -- where anyone could have snapped a photo.
Sievert's mother said her son was foolish to take a photo, but the picture taking did not justify a confrontation with police.
"It was something stupid, but they had no reason to do what they did," Leasa M. Pauli, 50, said. "They just ran up on him and slammed him for no reason. I think it is unfair."
During the raid, deputies seized a box of ammunition and a checkbook but did not find any drugs. Sievert was the only person arrested that afternoon.
What Sievert planned to do with the photos - if anything - remains unknown.