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    Keller: Decision to quit was mine

    The Clearwater assistant city manager declines to discuss a police investigation.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Assistant City Manager Bob Keller resigned Thursday and said stepping down now was his choice.

    The resignation came a week after police investigating a burglary at Keller's Countryside home discovered a small amount of a substance that is being tested to determine whether it is marijuana, city officials have told the Times.

    Keller, who returned from a vacation with his wife to find police in his house, said he decided to resign after discussing the issue with interim City Manager Bill Horne. Keller said Horne never directly asked for his resignation. Horne said this week that he suggested Keller resign from his job overseeing the city's economic development office.

    Beyond that, Keller declined to discuss the police investigation.

    "Even in light of the city's massive disregard of the confidentiality of investigations -- and the law is about the confidentiality of investigations -- I have no choice but not to talk," Keller said.

    Health concerns also figured in his decision to leave the city, Keller said. Doctors are reviewing whether he has cancer, Keller said. He declined to elaborate.

    wo city commissioners, F. David Hemerick and Ed Hart, have told the Times about some circumstances of Keller's departure.

    Hart said Horne informed him that police were sending the substance that was found at Keller's residence to a lab for analysis. Hart added that police were checking for fingerprints from around where it was found.

    Police officials have refused to discuss their investigation at Keller's home. They have declined to answer questions about how much and what kind of a substance was found, or where and how police came across it.

    Such details are key to any drug possession charge, defense attorneys say.

    If police are legally entitled to be inside a house investigating a burglary, and they come across an illegal substance in plain view, they can use their discretion and bring charges over the drug, said Denis de Vlaming, a well-known local criminal defense attorney.

    But there are plenty of sticky issues that might come up in court, said de Vlaming and Michael Schwartzberg, past president of a Pinellas criminal defense lawyers group.

    The first key issue would be what police were thinking when they entered the house, de Vlaming said. Police would have to have evidence that the burglar still was inside to warrant entering someone's home while the owner wasn't around.

    "Once they are in, they are not allowed to do anything more than a cursory search for people," de Vlaming said. "They may not conduct a search of the premises by opening drawers for example. They can't open and close containers."

    If a substance was found in such an improper search, Schwartzberg said, a defense attorney could argue in court that the evidence should be inadmissible.

    The second issue would be that if any substance was discovered in plain view, who does it belong to? If you're not around, the state has to prove that you were in control of the house or area where the drugs were found, de Vlaming said.

    If several people had been in the area recently, perhaps fingerprints or an admission would be necessary for the state to make a case, de Vlaming said.

    Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger echoed such concerns.

    Possession "means that you were the only one with knowledge of it and you're the only one that had access to it," he said. "Those are things that juries usually have to work out."

    Most tests to determine the presence of an illegal drug generally take a short time, an hour or less in many cases, before a charge is brought, the attorneys said.

    City Attorney Pam Akin said Thursday that Keller's resignation came only as a result of the investigation at his home.

    Under the terms of the deal that was made official Thursday, Keller will receive vacation and sick leave worth $23,283, plus 18 months of health insurance.

    The city plans to begin searching for a replacement this month.

    Recent coverage

    Official: Substance leads to inquiry (January 4, 2001)

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