Rick Scott's conservative base, already disillusioned by a series of steps by the Florida governor toward the political center in recent months in the run-up to a re-election year, has found a new grievance to air against him: his recent suspension of a sheriff who defended the Second Amendment.
On Tuesday, Scott suspended (without pay) Sheriff Nicholas Finch of Liberty County, after inspectors from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement obtained an arrest warrant for Finch, alleging that [he] destroyed or removed official arrest documents from the Liberty County Jail, making it appear as though an arrest never occurred.
[Scroll below to read Scott's executive order, attached to this article.]
The allegations revolve around an arrest made March 8 against a man who, in the course of a routine traffic stop, was discovered to be carrying a concealed weapon a .25 caliber semi-automatic pistol in his right pocket, and taken to the county jail. A few hours later, Sheriff Finch released the man, apparently whited-out the records of his arrest in the jail log, and disposed of his arrest file.
Finch's arrest warrant does not say whether the man Finch released had a concealed weapons permit. The affidavit notes that Finch told at least three officers the arrestee was being released because he [Finch] believes in Second Amendment rights.
Finch's attorney, Jimmy Judkins, is not talking to reporters, but he has defended his client's actions, saying they were a legitimate exercise of a sheriff's executive discretion:
The records at the jail show exactly what happened in this case and the records speak the truth, Judkins has said in a statement The sheriff looked at the facts and said I believe in the Second Amendment and were not going to charge him. That is not misconduct at all. That is within the sheriffs prerogative whether to charge someone or not.
Neither Scott nor the FDLE would comment on this story, since the investigation into Finch's actions are ongoing, but there are several lines of defense Finch and his attorneys will probably appeal to.
First, the arrest warrant charges Finch with having violated a Florida statute that makes it unlawful for a public official to conceal, alter, or destroy official documents with corrupt intent to obtain a benefit for any person or to cause harm to another.
But nothing in the affidavit appears to suggest that Finch acted with corrupt intent or to obtain a benefit for the arrested man. Finch apparently believed he was upholding the Second Amendment hardly a corrupt intent and the Second Amendment protects a right, not a benefit.
Second, rules published by the Florida Department of State seem to allow sheriffs to exercise the kind of discretion Finch did, assuming he acted in good faith. Item No. 32 (Arrest Records: Offender Information) says that arrest records must be retained until obsolete, superseded, or administrative value is lost. Finch's attorneys will probably argue that when Finch exercised his discretion not to press charges against the arrestee, the arrest records were obsolete and had lost their administrative value.
In addition, attorney and conservative activist KrisAnne Hall, a former state prosecutor, tells Sunshine State News there are indications in the FDLE's arrest warrant that the man arrested for concealed carry was not even properly booked in the first place.
If he had been booked, FDLE would have a booking record; he would have been fingerprinted and photographed and placed in the FDLE record, she explains. Since the FDLE came [to Liberty County]looking for his file, it seems to me that he was not even booked.
If the arrested man had not been booked, Hall says, his records never became a booking record, and in that situation Finch was well within his rights to white-out his name in the jail log to make room for those who would be properly booked.
Hall also says the very specificity of the arrest warrant strikes her as odd, even troubling.
As a prosecutor, I've never seen an affidavit with such detail, including conversations and speech, she tells SSN. It seems to me that there was a lot of time and detail spent [in the affidavit] on Finch's stance on the Second Amendment, when [FDLE's] charges have nothing to do with that; they're just alleging he improperly disposed of records. What do his views on the Second Amendment have to do with that?"
Finally, Hall suggests there's a possible conflict of interest in Scott's new appointee as interim sheriff of Liberty County: Carl Causey, who before his June 4 appointment was an FDLE assistant special agent.
That's very suspicious; you now have [a recent] FDLE agent as the head of the sheriff's department; they won't need a warrant to get anything [on Finch], she says. [Causey] gets to search through anything he has access to as sheriff and hand it over to FDLE.
Reach Eric Giunta at email@example.com or at 954-235-9116.