Redefining privacy in a police state

The private records of two families have become part of an investigation begun a year ago after police seized more than $35,000 from a rental car stopped on the Florida Turnpike. And although the only criminal charge resulting from the stop -- a misdemeanor marijuana charge -- has been dropped, the Orange County Sheriff's Department is still holding the cash. In striving to convince authorities to return the money, a local attorney has called for an internal investigation of the department's "misuse" of investigative subpoenas, which allow detectives to gain access to otherwise private records. On Aug. 20, 1996, Orange County deputies stopped a rental car carrying Jason Lyons and Christopher Bulgarin on the turnpike. Police found $35,350 in cash and less than a gram of marijuana under Lyons' belt buckle. Lyons was arrested on the drug charge, although it was later dropped. In addition to calling for an investigation of the use of the subpoenas, Mason has asked for an internal-affairs investigation because the deputies never provided Lyons with a receipt for the cash. Before dropping the charge, detectives traveled to Miami and obtained Lyons' parents' apartment rental agreement from their landlord. Using information from the agreement and other investigation, detectives eventually subpoenaed Lyons' and Bulgarin's educational records, their mothers' phone records, Lyons' brother's credit card and credit- union records and Lyons' mother's bank records. "This is like legal science fiction," says attorney Steve Mason. "This kind of stuff is unheard of." Mason based his call for an investigation of the use of the subpoenas on a sworn statement from Sgt. Ronald W. Chapman. In the statement, Chapman says that state attorneys -- the legal authorities expected to review the requests -- have never questioned his use of these subpoenas in four years on the job. While the statement centers on Lyons' case, it suggests a broader misuse of police power in Orange County. "We don't know how often they're doing it. It probably happens all the time," Mason says. "Based upon the scenario outlined in Chapman's testimony, any family member, friend or acquaintance of an individual being criminally investigated could find their privacy rights violated," Mason says in an Aug. 6 letter to Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary. "An individual's records cannot be seized by the government simply because a deputy sheriff is curious to see what they contain. This is unconstitutional and illegal." Dismissing the technique as an illegal "fishing expedition," Mason quotes a 1985 ruling: "Let the power once be established, and there is no knowing where the practice under it would end." While Mason suspects a pattern of misuse, Assistant State Attorney Joe Cocchiarella says, "People don't subpoena family records as a matter of course. It's probably extremely rare." Lyons brought his family into the picture by saying the money came from his father. And, Cochiarella asks, who wouldn't look carefully at two young men unable to explain $35,000 in cash? Mason says police should have to meet a standard to justify using subpoena powers. But Cocchiarella says "There's not a very high standard required. It's a preliminary investigatory tool." Nonetheless, Cocchiarella says he is reviewing Mason's allegations. Meanwhile, the legal tussle for the cash enters its second year. "We seize money when we can prove it was obtained in an illegal manner," says Deputy Miguel Pagan. "Some of these cases take time."
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