An Osceola County judge threw out all charges Tuesday in an April Fool's Day sting that led to the arrests of residents who were either homeless or poor.
Circuit Judge Jon B. Morgan dismissed felony theft charges against seven defendants after ruling the Osceola County Sheriff's Office entrapped them by leaving $350 cash hanging out of a purse at a bus stop on West U.S. Highway 192 on April 1.
"OCSO officers … had no prior knowledge of or suspicion regarding any of the defendants subsequently arrested, but set up the 'bait' to see who might take it," Morgan wrote in his ruling. "There is no evidence that any of the defendants had a prior arrest or conviction for theft or that they had a propensity to commit a crime."
The most significant criminal history among the seven who were arrested was a single count of fraudulent use of a credit card. None had been arrested or convicted with stealing, according to the ruling.
The sheriff's office challenged the description of the arrests as a "homeless sting" stating only three did not provide home addresses, while most of the others listed motels along the West U.S. Highway 192 tourist corridor.
"While we do not necessarily agree with Judge Morgan's ruling, we respect his opinion and will take his findings into consideration in order to enhance the way in which we conduct future operations," wrote sheriff's spokeswoman Twis Lizasuain. "The Osceola County Sheriff's Office will continue to work to make our community a safer place, not targeting a particular group or groups other than those who violate the law."
Florida law prohibits entrapment described as "where the actions of law enforcement are so egregious that to allow prosecution and conviction would constitute a violation of due process."
In this case, deputies placed a purse with an open wallet holding the cash in plain view, along with a cell phone and computer tablet on the handlebars of a bicycle left at the bus stop, records show. None of the other items was taken and at least two people tried to call police about the money and exposed items.
The sheriff's office was not immediately available to comment Tuesday afternoon.
Defense attorney Don Waggoner of Kissimmee defended all seven clients for free after learning about the circumstances of their arrests in April.
Torrie's Bail Bonds of Orlando did not charge a fee for posting bail for four of the defendants who were unable to pay to get released from jail.
"When I initially read about what happened, I was upset and spoke to the sheriff and we disagreed," Waggoner said of his conversation with Sheriff Bob Hansell. "You shouldn't be allowed to stop crime by creating crime, and that's what they did."
Waggoner noted that his clients — either homeless, day laborers or low-paid hourly workers — all admitted taking the bait money.
But, he said, law enforcement sometimes goes too far and "case law says this is the sort of thing society won't tolerate."
Copyright 2014 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
McClatchy-Tribune News Service