CREDIT: Courtesy of the Pinellas Park Police Department
Late Thursday night, the Pinellas Park Police Department got a tip from another police department that a man who had a federal warrant out for his arrest for child prostitution was in their jurisdiction. Acting on the tip, they found Jesse Sawyer, Jr., apprehended him, and brought him back to the station while they waited for confirmation of the warrant. But an hour and 20 minutes later, without sufficient confirmation, the officers on duty opted to let him go free.
Just a few minutes after his release, the Federal Bureau of Investigation confirmed the warrant electronically, according to Pinellas police. But when Pinellas officers went back to retrieve Sawyer, he was gone. The drama ended when FBI officials apprehended Sawyer late Friday afternoon. And we now know that the allegations against Sawyer include claims that he lured children younger than ten years old, raped them, recorded the assaults, and distributed that content. But in that gap of time, the escape of Sawyer raised questions about how Sawyer was set free, painting a complicated picture of legal constraints, inter-departmental communication, and judgment calls.
The evening started when officers got a tip from someone purportedly calling from the Troy Police Department in New York. That officer indicated that someone with an arrest warrant out for child pornography was located in Pinellas Park. Officers acted on the tip, although they had no way of verifying that the caller was actually from another police department, according to Public Information Officer Adam Geissenberger of the Pinellas Park Police Department.
“Yes, he identified himself as a law enforcement officer, but this is like you calling me telling me,” he said, explaining that the department would require additional verification.
The officers nonetheless acted on the tip at 11 p.m. and went to Calvary Chapel where he was being provided with temporary housing. The officers took Sawyer into custody based on reasonable suspicion that he was wanted by the FBI for child pornography. “Reasonable suspicion” is the standard for stopping and detaining someone briefly. It is not, however, the standard for arrest. That requires probable cause. And according to Geissenberger, the officers had no other evidence of Sawyer’s wrongdoing at that point, and thus no probable cause for his arrest in the absence of the warrant.
According to Geissenberger, police obtained this verification at 12:46 a.m. in the form of a “teletype.” But in a statement, FBI official Holstein said the agency “verbally confirmed” the arrest warrant within half an hour of receiving the inquiry. Holstein, the chief counsel and media coordinator for the FBI’s Albany division, declined to say what time the agency received the inquiry, or how that “verbal” confirmation related to the actual electronic confirmation that occurred at some point.
In addition, they they only knew at the time that he was being charged with a child pornography offense, and didn’t know the allegations including production of that pornography, Geissenberger said. Because there is no designated amount of time officers are permitted to hold a suspect, and they are held to the standard of a “reasonable amount of time,” reasonableness depends on the nature of the crime.
“What we originally got was he’s wanted for child pornography,” Geissenberger said. “Is this deplorable? Absolutely. Is it the crime of the century? It’s not. Had they told us that he is also wanted for raping children,” he said they probably would gone to much greater lengths to hold him for longer.
Geissenberger accurately describes a fuzzy and context-specific constitutional standard. When police detain a suspect solely on “reasonable suspicion,” they are undertaking what is known as a “Terry stop” under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Terry v. Ohio. This is the same standard that permits police to engage in stop-and-frisks. Pursuant to a Terry stop, police are permitted to “seize” persons and and things if they have reasonable suspicion. In a number of cases since Terry, the court has declined to set a time limit on how long police can hold someone, with justice splitting on precisely what the standard is. Some have said the standard is whether police were “diligently” pursuing a means of investigation that was likely to resolve the issue “quickly,” while others have said that the length of the stop is a clear factor in determining how long someone can be held.
Regardless of the precise standard, the duration of a seizure has been a definitive factor. In one case, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the seizure of a suspect’s luggage at the airport, in large part because it was 90 minutes long.
Police, therefore, had reason to believe that a seizure in excess of an hour could subject the hold to constitutional challenge — if they didn’t think the “verbal confirmation” was sufficient.
So when more than an hour passed, holding Sawyer after midnight, the officers believed the reasonable course of action was to let him go.
The FBI’s Holstein confirmed Friday that Sawyer is now in custody “as a result of the joint efforts of federal, state and local authorities.” He declined to discuss FBI protocol or whether the agency should have provided faster electronic verification of the warrant.