Cops who stop at nothing

Earlier this year, a special group of Orange County vice detectives stopped pulling over men leaving an adult club on Orange Blossom Trail ... but only after gathering evidence used to file a slew of criminal charges against eight dancers and a bouncer.;;Despite pressure, six of those pulled over refused to cooperate, which is their right under state and federal law. But 31 were convinced by the vice detectives to make statements, 26 of which were used to file criminal charges against employees of S.O.B.T. Live Shows.;;As a result, Orlando attorney Steven Mason has filed a federal lawsuit against the cities of Orlando and Apopka -- both of which supplied one agent each to the regional Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation -- as well as the two MBI agents themselves. If Mason gets his way, a federal judge will bring the stops to a halt, order the detectives to attend courses educating them on making legal stops, and award monetary damages to an Orlando man who was stopped by the detectives. ;;Mason contends the stops are the latest example of the county vice unit intentionally twisting the law to build cases against adult businesses. Evidence gathered from illegal stops of the dancers, owners and other employees actually under investigation would never be admissible in subsequent criminal cases. But evidence gathered from customers stopped illegally can be used in court, unless those stopped decide to assert a violation of their civil rights. And few stopped outside live shows are willing to air such dirty laundry in public.;;"It’s probably ingenious from the standpoint of illegality They violate the law to enforce the law," says Mason.;;Not so, says Joe Cocchiarella, the assistant state attorney assigned to the MBI, a special unit formed to fight drugs and other vice in Orange County. Cocchiarella says the customers were being stopped only in unique cases where evidence of criminal activity justifies this investigative technique. "It’s not something from out of the blue done randomly throughout town," says Cocchiarella, the county’s expert on adult-entertainment crime-fighting techniques.;;In addition, Cocchiarella says, "The activities [that] Mr. Mason’s complaining about were part of an investigation that resulted in charges being brought. We think when all the evidence is out, the courts will find the standard is met." Some of the cases already have resulted in convictions. Noting Mason’s history of representing the adult clubs, Cocchiarella described the lawsuit as "a counterattack.";;But Mason insists he is primarily interested in righting the civil-rights wrongs that he says are habitually committed by vice detectives banking on the unlikelihood of complaints by the customers. And yet before he could attack the constitutionality of the stops, Mason needed a willing customer.;;Enter Daniel P. Meyvis, 27, of Orlando, who was treated to a live show at S.O.B.T Live Shows by a friend on Dec. 17, 1996. "He dared me. I said OK," recalls Meyvis, who has no police record in Orange County. After enjoying the 15-minute dance, Meyvis drove off and was pulled over by two vice cops. ;;To convince him to cooperate, police promised Meyvis that he would not be arrested if he told the truth, and that they were videotaping the shows. He dutifully wrote out a detailed, graphic description of his encounter with a partially clothed dancer on the other side of a pane of glass. He sought help from Mason only after receiving 13 subpoenas to testify in cases filed as a result of the investigation and being interviewed by an investigator who worked for another defense attorney.;;While acknowledging the prospect of winning cash damages, Meyvis says he is motivated by anger at his treatment by police. "I’m getting tired of them acting like they’re the higher power," he says.;;While pursuing Meyvis’ suit, Mason is preparing a class-action lawsuit asserting that Orange County vice cops have been conducting similar stops for years to build cases against adult establishments. "It’s simply a tool to close down businesses they consider a moral blight. They determine the moral standard," he says. ;;State and federal laws require police to have legal justification for a traffic stop. But courts have chipped away at these protections in rulings over the past two decades. Perhaps the judge in Mason’s case will take the opportunity to grant police even more latitude.;;And what better place than Orange County to set a new precedent compromising civil rights? As Steve Drake, manager of S.O.B.T Live shows told a confidential informant, "This is Orange County; it’s the strictest county there is."


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