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How far is too far for the sex cops?
Two recent Hillsborough cases suffer as questions are raised about undercover authorities going a bit too far during their investigations.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER and CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD
Published July 31, 2004
TAMPA - Two Hillsborough County sheriff's detectives working a prostitution case listened on a bugging device as their undercover informant in a nearby motel room got oral sex from a woman he paid $200.
Court records present a scene of the detectives finally bursting into the motel room and arresting 35-year-old Karadine Rieder. She and the informant were naked, and in the middle of the sexual act.
Two years after Rieder's arrest, the case against her faces the possibility of dismissal because of the conduct of the officers.
It is the second time in a month that questions have been raised about the behavior of officers investigating prostitution in Tampa.
Last month, a jury in another prostitution case heard a detective testify that it is permissible for undercover officers to have some forms of sexual contact while investigating.
Tampa police Detective Dale Tuvell told the jury that while undercover officers are "discouraged" from touching the pubic areas of dancers in strip clubs, "that would be appropriate" as long as there is no sexual intercourse.
"They would be allowed to touch any area that would not compromise or commit a sexual act," Tuvell testified. "We don't penetrate. That's basically about it."
After five days of testimony, it took the jury just three hours to acquit the defendant, a club owner accused of allowing prostitution on the premises. The Tampa Police Department had spent two years building the case against him and other club owners and dancers.
Paul Sisco, who represents one person arrested in the two-year investigation, says the strategies of the officers need to be brought out into the public light.
"I don't think the average citizen knows members of the Tampa Police Department are being sexually gratified to some extent in these back rooms" to make arrests, Sisco said.
"I'm not certain most of the public would consider it prudent spending of public funds to get our officers aroused."
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Karadine Reider's attorney, public defender Michelle Lambo, argues that the sheriff's detectives could have arrested Rieder as soon as she took $200 from the informant and offered to perform oral sex on him.
"The sheriff's deputies' conduct is outrageous," she said, "because they did not enter the room until Ms. Rieder removed her clothing and began performing oral sex."
In a motion heard this week by Hillsborough Judge Debra Behnke, Lambo asks that the case be dismissed.
"There's nothing that allows the government to engage in sexual activity to make a sting operation or to make a bust," Lambo argued.
Sheriff's Detective John Couey testified before Behnke that it's not uncommon for informants to take their clothes off during prostitution stings, because the women want to be assured the men aren't cops.
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Unlike the Tampa Police Department, which uses its own officers in such undercover operations, the Sheriff's Office uses confidential informants because "the sheriff does not want us to remove our clothes or expose our sexual organs," Couey said.
Couey said the informants are discouraged from actually engaging in sexual activity, and they are supposed to give detectives a signal to come in and make their arrest.
"It's kind of a judgment call on their part" when to make the call, he said.
Assistant State Attorney Monica Frost argued that it was difficult for Couey and another detective, who were listening from a motel room down the hall, to discern whether a sex act had actually begun.
"So he (the informant) may have waited too long" to signal detectives, Frost said. "But it's not so outrageous that the case should be dismissed against this known prostitute."
Behnke told the two attorneys: "It may come down to what the term outrageous is and what my view of that is."
* * *
The Tampa Police Department's case was against Dewayne Allen Levesque, former manager at the Pink Pony club. He was arrested Dec. 22 and charged with racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering and aiding and abetting an offer to commit prostitution.
He could have faced 100 years in prison if convicted.
The charges stemmed from a two-year undercover investigation into four clubs - Pink Pony, Pony Tails, Gold Rush and Diamonds - that police alleged were fronts for prostitution.
Over the two years, undercover detectives spent night after night in the clubs, and they found that sex was happening in private rooms, according to court records. Women offered to perform a variety of sexual acts on the detectives, if they paid $10 to $12 to get into the back rooms.
Police said Levesque managed the Pink Pony between August 2002 and September 2003. During that time, 10 employees were arrested on prostitution charges. According to the criminal affidavit for Levesque's arrest, he told Detective Tuvell he knew sexual activity was happening inside the club but wouldn't "comply with the law" until "all other clubs in Tampa complied."
There is no indication in the actual charging document what sort of contact, if any, plain clothes officers had with the women while working undercover, but Tuvell did testify that touching short of penetration was permissible, at least in his view.
That contradicts the policy as outlined on Friday by Tampa police spokesman Joe Durkin. He said that the agency has no written policy but that it is understood "absolutely no sex act is committed" during such investigations.
"There would be no nude contact allowed, no direct contact," Durkin said.
Durkin said undercover investigations of sexual crimes like prostitution are difficult because they force officers into awkward situations.
"It's a role that not every officer can do," Durkin said. "It's a very difficult line to walk."
Levesque's attorney, John Lauro, said he doesn't think the undercover officers' conduct led jurors to acquit his client. He thinks the jury was swayed by Levesque's tape-recorded remarks in which he suggested police and city officials band together to shut down the back rooms.
But the fact that Tampa police have no written guidelines on how to conduct undercover prostitution investigations "leaves a lot of discretion," Lauro said.
"The better practice," he said, "would be to develop certain guidelines so officers know what they can and can't do."