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Pinellas Marijuana Case Dismissed After Allegations of Investigator Misconduct

As reported in the Tampa Bay Times earlier this week, dozens of Pinellas County marijuana cases are being reconsidered and possibly dismissed amid allegations that narcotics deputies trespassed and lied to gather evidence. The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office announced Tuesday that it is dismissing charges against an accused St. Petersburg marijuana grower and will reconsider dozens of similar cases.

The dismissed case was against David Cole, who said he was growing pot in his shed to treat his multiple sclerosis symptoms. The case was dismissed just as his attorneys were set to depose a key deputy about possible narcotics unit misconduct.

"Information came to light Friday that calls into question the veracity of those involved in making that case to the point where I believe the right thing to do is to have that case dismissed," Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said on Tuesday. Gualtieri did not provide any more details to the media, citing the fact that the internal affairs office is now investigating how the Cole case and others stemming from the two-year surveillance of a Largo hydroponics store were handled.

Sworn search warrant applications by deputies Paul Giovannoni and Michael Sciarrino - the lead detectives in the grow house cases - said they could smell indoor pot farms from public sidewalks and neighbors' yards. It is alleged thought that the two deputies and at least one supervisor trespassed to get their information, which is illegal.

Back in February, former narcotics deputy Kyle Alston was deposed in a Tarpon Springs marijuana grow house case. A defense lawyer in that case asked if Alston had ever seen Sciarrino and Giovannoni "climb over fences," shorthand for trespassing. Alston refused to answer.

Other defense attorneys in Tampa Bay were made aware of Alston's refusal to answer the question. Cole's defense attorney scheduled a deposition of Alston and asked a judge to stand by to rule on whether he had to answer the question about trespassing.

Besides re-evaluating pending grow house cases, Gaultieri said his office will also examine investigative techniques on cases recently resolved through plea bargains or convictions. "Many (cases) may be involved before it is all said and done." Gaultieri said. "Many may go."

The Times quoted Bjorn Brunvand of this office, explaining that he will seek an expedited deposition in a similar case in the next few days of Alston, Gualtieri and a Progress Energy Florida employee who helped officers find out how much power grow house suspects were using.

"I would not be surprised if the same thing happened in my case," Brunvand said, referring to charges against Cole being dropped.

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