Sheriff’s Office narcotics unit investigation raises questions

The GRIP received information from a confidential source alleging the Spalding County Sheriff’s Office Special Operations Unit in 2012 conducted an illegal operation involving the placement of a Global Positioning System (GPS) tracker on a vehicle without court ordered authorization. The GRIP conducted an investigation based on that allegation and the following is the first in a series of articles detailing its findings, including the official responses to numerous Open Records requests submitted to the Sheriff’s Office. Due to the nature of and dangers associated with narcotics investigations, The GRIP WILL NOT be identifying the citizens who were involved in this incident or the exact locations of the various activities involved in the operation.

SHEILA A. MATHEWS :::

A confidential source provided The GRIP with information alleging the Spalding County Sheriff’s Office in 2012 conducted an illegal operation by placing a GPS tracker on a vehicle without a court order authorizing agents to do so. This source also alleged agents of the SCSO Special Operations Unit, which conducts the agency’s narcotics investigations, had disabled the vehicle’s tag and/or tail lights to establish probable cause for a subsequent traffic stop.

Upon receipt of this allegation, The Grip submitted an initial Open Records request seeking all information pertaining to Special Operations’ use of a GPS tracker from Nov. 8-13, 2012.

In response to this request, the Sheriff’s Office confirmed the operation was conducted, but denied it was illegal, claiming it was initiated following the receipt of information agents obtained from a confidential informant who was willing to assist in an investigation.

“The confidential informant agreed to have the GPS System installed on his vehicle to aid the agents. The confidential informant suggested disabling of a tail light on his vehicle to provide a reason for the agents to perform a traffic stop on his vehicle. The agents stated that would not be necessary but the confidential informant disabled the tail light himself,” the SCSO response stated. “The confidential informant could not provide a date or time he would have contact with the suspect. It was agreed that when the meeting was set the informant would contact the agents so they could begin monitoring the activity of his vehicle.”

The response went on to claim that during that time, the District Attorney’s office was contacted regarding this operation. According to the Sheriff’s Office, representatives of District Attorney Scott Ballard’s office informed Special Operations agents that based on the confidential informant’s consent, a court order was not required to place the GPS tracker on the vehicle.

The Sheriff’s Office response concluded by stating, “The informant never contacted the suspect and the GPS System was never activated. After a few days the system was removed from the informant’s vehicle. Since the events never occurred as stated, there isn’t any documentation as you requested.”

However, The GRIP is in possession of evidence disproving at least a portion of the Sheriff’s Office’s initial response – its assertion the GPS tracker was never activated – in the form of a 112-page tracker report that establishes the equipment was activated on Nov. 8, 2012, and continued to document the vehicle’s precise movements through Nov. 13, 2012.

The report indicates it was generated by ShadowOps, the company from which the tracker was obtained, identifies the client as the Spalding County Sheriff’s Office, specifically “Spalding Special Operations,” and documents the total distance traveled from Nov. 8-13, 2012, as 562.22 miles, with the vehicle in motion for 81.71 hours and at rest for 35.85 hours.

The tracker, which the Sheriff’s Office denied was ever activated, for five days documented the precise latitude and longitude of the vehicle, the speed and direction it traveled and the addresses of every location to which it traveled.

To ensure the confidential information received by this newspaper could not be associated with another operation, The GRIP submitted a separate Open Records request seeking the reports of all instances in which Special Operations utilized a GPS tracker for investigative purposes during the month of November 2012.

The response from Capt. Gilles Lalumiere, who heads up the Special Operations Unit, stated, “The only time a tracker was used in November 2012 was around the 8th of November incident. Special Operations DID NOT PRINT a tracking record because the tracker was never monitored and the investigation was terminated before it could begin. The company from whom the tracker was obtained, Shadow Ops, is no longer in business.” (emphasis attributed to Lalumiere)

Publisher’s note: Once the Sheriff’s Office’s initial Open Records response alleging the tracker was never activated was received – a response disputed by the tracker report provided by a confidential source – and it was verified that the tracker was used at no other time during the month of November 2012, The GRIP began to investigate the circumstances surrounding the operation. The next article in this series will be printed Dec. 7, and will outline the actions taken by Sgt. John Corley, of the SCSO Special Operations Unit, who was the case agent in this operation.

 

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