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    Judge: Search was improper

    Drug evidence is thrown out because the search warrant request contained "false representations.''

    By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 28, 2001


    LARGO -- Pinellas sheriff's detectives told a judge in December that they suspected that a house in Oldsmar was the site of a marijuana growing operation.

    They got a search warrant. Deputies found what they expected: 170 marijuana plants, or 36 pounds of pot.

    But a Pinellas-Pasco judge has thrown out all evidence obtained in the search because sheriff's detectives made numerous "omissions and false representations" in their request to get the search warrant.

    Now attorneys for defendants Steven H. Byle, 41, and Robert R. Stuller, 40, say the case against the pair is endangered and likely to be dropped. Prosecutors could not be reached for comment.

    Circuit Judge Dee Anna Farnell said in a ruling on Thursday that evidence "establishes that law enforcement misrepresented information and skewed the evidence by omitting pertinent information" in their request to a judge to get the search warrant.

    This is the second time in two years that a judge has ruled that sheriff's detectives misrepresented themselves to obtain a search warrant in a drug case.

    In October 1999, a different judge criticized detectives -- including one of the same detectives in the current case -- for an affidavit seeking a search warrant that showed "a reckless disregard for the truth."

    That case was ultimately dropped by prosecutors.

    "Detectives lied, and they were caught in their lies," said attorney John Trevena, who represents Byle.

    Byle filed a formal Internal Affairs complaint against the two detectives who signed an affidavit to obtain the warrant, David V. Antolini II and Cynthia Bowman. Neither returned a call for comment.

    Antolini was one of the detectives involved in the case criticized in 1999.

    Sheriff's officials say they cannot comment about the case until reviewing that complaint and the judge's decision.

    "Suffice it to say that I know the detectives involved, and I know the work they've done in the past, and I find it hard to believe they've done anything wrong," said Sgt. Greg Tita, a spokesman for Sheriff Everett Rice.

    Among the problems in the search warrant cited by the judge:

    Detectives told a judge who signed the search warrant that Byle was formerly charged in Hillsborough with marijuana cultivation. They failed to disclose that the case was dropped.

    Detectives failed to tell the judge about a possible motive behind the tipster who told them about the growing operation. The tipster's wife was having an affair with Stuller, the ruling said.

    Detectives incorrectly told the judge that the amount of electricity produced by the house was exceedingly high, indicative of a grow operation.

    Detectives said they took a thermal image of the house for four hours when, in fact, they took an image for seven minutes.

    Detectives said they saw Byle at the home several times as they investigated the case. In fact, they spotted only his vehicle, not him.

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