Hillsborough's sheriff and state attorney seemed in sync. What happened?

  • In US
  • 2022-08-12 16:48:00Z
  • By Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla.

TAMPA - Hillsborough's sheriff and top prosecutor seemed to share plenty of common ground.

Sheriff Chad Chronister and now-ousted State Attorney Andrew Warren worked together on reforms like pre-arrest diversion programs and juvenile civil citations, agreeing that resources should be devoted to prosecuting serious crimes and giving some first-time offenders a second chance. They've supported each other's political campaigns. They've called each other friends.

But the simpatico relationship blew up last Thursday when Chronister stood alongside Gov. Ron DeSantis as he announced he was removing Warren for what he claimed was the state attorney's disregard of his duty to enforce state laws.

And Chronister didn't just attend the news conference. He hosted it at a Sheriff's Office building in Tampa. Some of his deputies stood behind the governor at an event that at times had the air of a campaign rally, with supporters cheering.

Speaking after DeSantis, Chronister said Warren was "empowering criminals through a lack of prosecution," and DeSantis' move was holding him accountable.

How did their relationship sour?

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Chronister went into detail about what motivated him to support DeSantis' bombshell move.

Chronister said he respects Warren's passion and commitment to his beliefs but has long had issues with his prosecutorial decisions and has shared those concerns with Warren. So when DeSantis' office called Chronister recently to ask if he had problems with Warren, Chronister said, he gave his assessment.

"I was going to be nothing but honest," the sheriff said.

Warren, who plans to fight what he has called the governor's abuse of power, told the Times he was surprised by Chronister's words and support for his removal.

Warren acknowledged that he and Chronister have had disagreements, but he characterized them as natural tension between law enforcement officers who make arrests and prosecutors who must set priorities and decide whether to pursue charges based on the evidence. Warren said he and Chronister have had a productive relationship and have racked up accomplishments to reduce crime while reforming the local justice system.

"With a lot of the claims that people are making," Warren said, "truth has left the building."

'There has to be separation of powers'

Chronister and Warren's time in their respective roles tracks closely together and marked a changing of the criminal justice guard in Hillsborough County.

Warren, a former federal prosecutor, won an upset victory against Republican State Attorney Mark Ober in 2016. He was in office for about six months when Gov. Rick Scott in 2017 appointed Chronister after Sheriff David Gee abruptly retired. Chronister won his first election in 2020 and is up for reelection in 2024.

Chronister was a moderate Republican, Warren a progressive Democrat. By the time they ran their respective reelection campaigns in 2020, they'd worked with Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta and Public Defender Julianne Holt to create and expand a juvenile citation program and pre-arrest diversion program for adults and create a juvenile mental health court.

Chronister told the Times that he is proud of those programs. They offer people second chances, but they're designed to still hold them accountable.

"The issue that I've always had with State Attorney Warren is his lack of prosecution, his lack of fighting," Chronister said. He said Warren has said he won't prosecute a case that he doesn't know he can win, "and I've always disagreed with his philosophy when it came to that."

Chronister said he also was troubled by what he said was Warren deeming "some crimes legal or illegal, and that's not his place."

"I assured him that there has to be separation of powers and if he wanted to deem which laws would be enacted, then he should pursue higher office," Chronister said.

The order outlining the basis for Warren's removal cited his policy not to prosecute certain criminal violations, including trespassing at a business location, disorderly conduct, disorderly intoxication and prostitution. It also cited a policy "against prosecuting crimes where the initial encounter between law enforcement and the defendant results from a non-criminal violation in connection with riding a bicycle or a pedestrian violation."

Chronister said he's a firm believer in prosecutorial discretion but that blanket policies go too far.

"That hinders law enforcement and performance of their duty, especially in some of the more common areas where the main form of transportation is people walking or riding a bicycle," Chronister said.

Chronister said Warren issued a memo to his staff stating misdemeanor marijuana possession would not be prosecuted in his office.

"And then several weeks later he reached out to us and had a meeting with all his criminal justice partners and wanted to know what we were going to do," Chronister recalled. "I'm like, well, we just found out about it moments ago."

So Chronister said he came up with a plan, approved by the County Commission in 2020, to issue civil citations and a fine.

"My job is to enforce the law, so I had to come up with a mechanism to hold people accountable," he said.

But Chronister said the biggest frustration was Warren's office failing too often to prosecute violent crime cases.

During the news conference, he cited the case of a 21-year-old suspect who has been arrested multiple times since September, including for attempted murder. He got out on bail and was arrested 10 days later on armed burglary and grand theft charges. In both the attempted murder and armed burglary and grand theft cases, the state attorney's office elected not to file charges.

When Chronister and his detectives asked why, he told the crowd at the news conference, the explanation was that "the depositions would have been too lengthy and complicated."

Chronister said his decision to support DeSantis' action had nothing to do with the two issues that have garnered the most media attention.

The governor's order noted that Warren had signed on to a June 2021 "joint statement" with progressive prosecutors around the country "to use our discretion and not promote the criminalization of gender-affirming healthcare or transgender people." The order also stated that Warren joined a similar statement about abortion cases.

"My decision was totally based on ... the victims seeking justice, the lack of prosecution and the crimes that he was deeming legal and illegal here in Hillsborough County," Chronister said.

The sheriff said other law enforcement officials in the county share his concerns but as appointees are not in a position to speak out. As an elected official, Chronister felt compelled to do so. After the announcement, the Times tried without success to get comment on Warren's removal from the police chiefs in Hillsborough's three cities, Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace.

But retired Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan, who has openly criticized Warren's decision not to prosecute some protestors in the wake of George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis, spoke at the DeSantis news conference and took the harshest swipes at Warren.

Dugan said later in an interview with the Times that in June 2021, when DeSantis was in Pinellas County to sign a bill naming roads after a Pinellas sheriff's deputy and Tampa officer who died in the line of duty, he and Chronister "had a conversation with Gov. DeSantis about Warren's lack of prosecution and just his laissez-faire approach to things."

'The decisions I've been making are working'

In an interview, Warren first responded to Chronister's comments by pointing to Hillsborough's crime rate.

He noted that Hillsborough has the lowest overall index crime rate in the Tampa Bay area, the lowest of any large county in Florida. He said the rate has gone down every year he has been in office for a total decrease of about 30 percent. (The index rate includes murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft. And there are some caveats to the overall crime decrease. The number of murders in Hillsborough, for example, increased from 66 in 2019 to 81 in 2020 and the number of aggravated assault cases grew by 621 to 3,201.)

Warren also noted his office filed more charges and got more convictions than the average prosecutor's office in Florida.

"People can express disagreement with my philosophy. That's how democracy works, or at least how it used to work," Warren said. "But I was elected to do this job twice, and these are the decisions that the people of Hillsborough County elected and reelected me to make. And the decisions that I've been making are working."

Warren said his office adopted the bicycle citation policy following multiple meetings with Tampa Police Department officials. He called it another "small step" in an effort "to move away from the illegal and controversial tactics of 'biking while Black' while ensuring people who were committing actual crimes were arrested and prosecuted."

It was a reference to a 2015 Times investigation that found Tampa police were disproportionally stopping and ticketing Black bicyclists. Warren said his office's policy applied only to cases that qualify for a civil traffic infraction, and that has been about 40 out of the 50,000 to 60,000 cases his office handled each year.

Warren also disputed Chronister's account about the marijuana policy. Warren said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement had announced that it would not test marijuana amounts totaling less than 30 grams, and that Florida voters approved medical marijuana and that police could no longer stop people for just the odor of marijuana.

"All of this made bringing marijuana cases very challenging for cops and prosecutors," he said. "So we called a meeting, we basically summarized this new legal framework in writing and invited law enforcement to come talk about how we wanted to handle this going forward."

So what about the violent crime case Chronister cited at the news conference, and his allegation that it's part of a pattern?

"Cherry picking a couple of cases to fit a political narrative is so ridiculous it doesn't even warrant a response," Warren said, noting his office handled about 300,000 cases during his tenure. "It's like pointing out a couple of incompletions that Tom Brady threw to suggest he really didn't want to win football games. We want to win every case, especially the more serious ones, and we prosecute them aggressively. That's been the policy since day one."


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