Section 918.13, Fla. Stat.,[i] was enacted to curtail individuals from altering physical evidence. Essentially, creating and fabricating documents to avoid prosecution. Things like fake purchase orders or invoices…etc. to avoid money laundering charges with “cooked” books.
Section (1)(b) reads, “Make, present, or use any record, document, or thing, knowing it to be false.” The obvious purpose was to forbid suspects from creating fake documents to exonerate themselves or “throw off” an investigation. The flipside of this law is that no one (not even law enforcement) can alter a document and present that document as authentic and real all the while knowing it is altered (which, therefore, makes it false and a felony).
On 15 December 2020, the Tampa Police Department charged one of its own with two counts of “tampering with physical evidence.” During a press conference on the matter, Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan stated that the “cover up is worse than the crime.”[ii] Dugan outlined that during an attempted homicide investigation Detective Jarda Bradford created a photographic lineup array.[iii] The photopack (as they are referred to) was shown to the witnesses by another detective who knows nothing about the case or who the potential suspect might be.[iv]
One of the photos shown to the witness had earrings. It is not clear, but the other must not have had earrings. Apparently, Detective Bradford was told to digitally coverup the earrings so that no individual in the photopack had any extraneous identifying marks. After the witness was shown the photopack, a supervisor pointed out the error and told Detective Bradford about it.
On her own volition, Detective Bradford went back and digitally edit the photopack to now remove the earrings. This was tampering charge number one. Additionally, because the witness had not signed the new, digitally altered photopack, she photoshopped in the witness’s signature from the original photopack. This was tampering charge number two.
According to Detective Bradford’s attorney, Detective Bradford “made procedural errors – – but did not break the law.”[v] He went on to accuse the Tampa Police Department of shotty supervision and training amongst other things. “Mistakes were made.” Ahem. No mistake was made. A crime was allegedly committed.
Think about it this way – – how is what Detective Bradford did any different than let us say a law enforcement officer shooting an unarmed suspect and then placing a knife, firearm, or weapon in the dead suspect’s hand before anyone knows to protect himself? Or while searching a black or brown teenager’s car on a nonsense traffic stop and then planting a baggie of cocaine to justify the detention and arrest? Neither of these questions scarcely escape their own statement. And, of course, this is unacceptable. Period.
It is unacceptable in a criminal investigation to create evidence. Period. The topic should not even be up for discussion. Further, it matters not that the officer with 17 years of law enforcement experience, did not understand the 2017 statute on photopacks or did not have the proper training to create or administer the photopack. She was charged with the responsibility of enforcing the law and failed to do her job. There may be others that are equally responsible for her crimes because they were complicit in what happened or grossly negligent in her supervision, but none of that excuses or justifies her actions. She intended to change the photopacks, changed the photopacks, added a signature, and submitted the altered document as evidence.[vi] She planted evidence in evidence for the prosecution of this suspect.
I know that sounds harsh, but here is the rub. All these rules are in place for a reason. Too many people have lost their freedom from nonsense convictions. Too many people have been ripped from their families, their children, and their friends for crimes they did not commit. As of 6 February 2020, according to the National Registry of Exonerations exactly 2,551 people have been exonerated since 1989.[vii]
Wrongful convictions are an epidemic in America. Groups like the Innocence Project has worked hard to free these innocent people.[viii] While some of these wrongful convictions are the product of systematic racism and police prejudice, most of the wrongful convictions are the product of well-meaning and well-intentioned police officers that cut corners, had serious laps in judgment, and made epic mistakes in an effort to “get justice” for a victim (rather than following the evidence to wherever and/or whomever the evidence led).
Make no mistake, Detective Bradford is entitled to her day in court. At this point, she has been accused (nothing more). She is entitled to present whatever defense she likes at her trial as she attempts to clear her name. She and her legal team may yet be able to convince the jury of what she says (that this was a lack of training and supervision). But at this point, looking at what has been presented to the public, it does not look good for her. With 17 years of law enforcement, she knows right from wrong. She knows that submitting altered documents is wrong. She does not need a law to explain that to her. Fabricating evidence in an investigation and/or prosecution (even for a laudable purpose) is morally and legally wrong. And is a crime.
Anthony Candela is the Trial Dog and a Board-Certified attorney. He opened the Candela Law Firm, P.A. in 2014 and handles criminal trials and appeals (as well as estate planning, wills, and trusts). He received his J.D. from Duquesne University School of Law in 2000 and his B.A. in Political Science from King’s College in 1996. As an expert in criminal law and procedure, he has tried over a hundred cases to verdict. Since 2008, he has been certified and recertified by the Florida Bar in Criminal Trial three times. He has also argued several dozen appeals. In the federal system, he is admitted to the Middle District of Florida and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal. #candelalawfirm #thetrialdog
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[i] Section 918.13 Tampering with or fabricating physical evidence.—
(1) No person, knowing that a criminal trial or proceeding or an investigation by a duly constituted prosecuting authority, law enforcement agency, grand jury or legislative committee of this state is pending or is about to be instituted, shall:
(a) Alter, destroy, conceal, or remove any record, document, or thing with the purpose to impair its verity or availability in such proceeding or investigation; or
(b) Make, present, or use any record, document, or thing, knowing it to be false.
(2) Any person who violates any provision of this section shall be guilty of a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
History.—s. 2, ch. 72-315.
[ii] https://www.wtsp.com/article/news/local/hillsboroughcounty/tampa-police-detective-suspended-two-felonies/67-acc0bfee-91fd-4052-a144-1296dd03800e Tampa Police detective suspended, charged with 2 counts tampering with evidence (15 December 2020)
[iii] Usually, a series of six photographs with any identifying information removed from the photo. The photos are drawn from several databases including the driver and vehicle identification (“DAVID”), local sheriffs’ booking photos, or Florida Department of Prison inmate photos. The photos are arranged in a row or two rows and shown to a victim or witness to see if the person can identify anyone. Recently, after years of lazy police work, investigative shenanigans, and abuse with photograph lineups, that lead to a few too many DNA exonerations, local law enforcement and the legislature created strict guidelines in an effort to promote more confidence in eyewitness identification. See §92.70, Fla. Stat. (“Eyewitness identification”) Enacted 2017.
[iv] The idea is this – – the detective who does not know anything about the case or investigation shows the witness the photopack. Since that detective does not know anything about the case, it becomes next to impossible for that detective to direct, guide, or pressure (whether overtly or implicitly) the witness into making a selection. Think double blind experiment in science.
[vi] What is nuts to me as a practioner is this – – the altered document would never be admitted into evidence at a hearing or trial because the witness cannot say that the document is in substantially the same condition as it was when they viewed the evidence because it has been doctored. This is an epic failure.
[vii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Registry_of_Exonerations#:~:text=As%20of%20February%206%2C%202020,officers%20systematically%20framed%20innocent%20defendants. …The National Registry does not include more than 1,800 defendants cleared in 15 large-scale police scandals that came to light between 1989 and March 7, 2017, in which officers systematically framed innocent defendants.