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3 officers suspended after arrest inquiry

A Hudson man, who was warned about being with an officer's girlfriend, is seeking damages after being arrested for theft despite a lack of evidence.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 16, 2003


PORT RICHEY -- The man approached William Griffin's car, parked outside the bar, and offered some advice.

"Dude, she's got a boyfriend," he told Griffin, who was seated next to a woman. "You're going to be in big trouble 'cause he's a cop."

But when it was all over, it was the Port Richey police officer who was in big trouble, along with his supervisor and a Pasco County sheriff's deputy.

And now the City of Port Richey and the Sheriff's Office could face a lawsuit from Griffin, 28, who asserts his rights were violated during the ordeal.

"You can't just go around doing what those guys did," Griffin's attorney, Howard Chappell of St. Petersburg, said Tuesday.

"You would think they would know better. The constitutional violations are just left and right, all over the place."

Chappell has notified the city and the Sheriff's Office that his client is seeking payment for damages.

The incident began early Aug. 24 outside Hurricane's Lounge on Ridge Road in New Port Richey.

Griffin met Jennifer Jacques, 23, at the bar and asked her if she wanted to go to his car and smoke marijuana, according to incident reports. (Jacques told investigators they were going for cigarettes.)

A while later, Steven Larner and a woman approached the car and issued the aforementioned warning, Griffin said. Larner, speaking to investigators, did not recall exactly what he said, only that he mentioned Jacques had a boyfriend. Larner is a friend of Jacques' boyfriend, James Ruland, a Port Richey police officer.

Griffin said he thought there would be a fight with Larner and got out of his car, a black Dodge Stratus. He then got back in and drove away.

"My purse," Jacques yelled. Griffin said he grabbed the purse and threw it out the window; Jacques said he dumped some items -- a cell phone and eye liner -- on the road but not the entire purse, which she said also contained the key to her Lincoln Navigator, makeup, a credit card and a video store card.

About 12:15 a.m., Larner called Ruland about the incident. Ruland was off duty at the time but called and got permission from then-Cpl. Ronald "Gene" Blythe to take a police car to investigate the matter in Hudson, which is out of his department's jurisdiction.

Using his police radio, Ruland called sheriff's deputy Ronald Heinemann and told him that his girlfriend's purse had been taken and that he wanted to get it back because some of the items in the purse belonged to him.

Traveling in separate cars, Ruland and Heinemann went to Griffin's home on Kitten Trail in Hudson. There they met Griffin's mother, Roslyn. She said her son was sleeping and went to wake him. While she did this, the officers walked in the front door, doing so without permission, the investigation found.

Incident reports indicate that when Griffin asked for an attorney, the officers said he would not need one. Heinemann handcuffed Griffin and led him outside, where Jacques was sitting in Ruland's vehicle. She identified Griffin and he was placed under arrest for theft.

Although Heinemann made the arrest, he did not take Griffin to the sheriff's West Operations Center in New Port Richey, the reports said. His shift was ending so he asked Ruland to make the drive. Ruland obliged -- with his girlfriend in the front seat.

Heinemann eventually showed up at the operations center, explaining he forgot to turn in a gun. After consulting with other deputies, he determined that without stolen property, he could not make a case against Griffin. He had Griffin released and drove him home.

A few days later, Griffin and his mother arrived at the Port Richey Police Department and filed complaints, touching off internal investigations that resulted in suspensions for all three officers involved.

Heinemann, 31, was suspended seven days without pay. He was cited for entering the Griffin home without permission, a violation of arrest procedures, for telling Griffin he did not need an attorney and for making a misdemeanor theft arrest that did not meet the criteria for a warrantless arrest.

Ruland, 27, was suspended five days without pay, though Chief Bill Downs allowed the time to be deducted from accrued compensatory time. He was reprimanded for negligence and for involving himself in a case in which he had personal stake. He also violated department policy by allowing his girlfriend to ride in the car during an investigation.

Blythe, 58, was suspended 71/2 days without pay, with the hours deducted from accrued compensatory time. He was reprimanded for failing to provide proper supervision by giving Ruland permission to leave city jurisdiction to investigate the missing purse.

Ruland and Blythe declined comment Tuesday. Downs also declined, citing possible legal action. Heinemann could not be reached.

The Port Richey suspensions were handed down March 10, following the Sheriff's Office investigation. In the meantime, Griffin's attorney has been building the case.

"It's scary in this day in age that a police officer could do something like that," Chappell said Tuesday.

-- Alex Leary can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is leary@sptimes.com .

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