Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd’s interesting take on the concept of due process

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Grady Judd seems to have an interesting take on the idea of due process.

During a Tuesday morning press conference, the Polk County Sheriff, joined by several local law enforcement leaders, promoted “Operation Cyber Vigilance,” a four-month crackdown on “sexual predators.”

Although already well publicized in the local media, Judd again touted the operation by pointing to a “big board” with 132 mugshots.

What Judd did not know, or simply did not care, reports Noah Pransky of WTSP/ 10 News, was that many of those in the mugshots were cleared of crimes.

“Those folks that our parents warned us about are these people,” Judd said, motioning to the board. “These are the sexual predators that are prowling around, these are the bad guys.”

There were no new arrests to report at Tuesday’s press conference, so instead, Judd focused on the 132 mugshots originally from arrests by the regional Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC), the task force led by Judd that ran March through June.

It was a sting operation which had already been covered more than a month ago by local media.

After WTSP/10 Investigates dug deeper into incidents of misconduct by law enforcement, Pransky asked Judd about several of the men on the board who had charges dropped by the courts.

Judd was not fazed. “It’s fair,” he responded.

“There is a difference between probable cause and ‘beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt,’” Judd said. “And let me tell you one thing so there’s no misunderstanding – when we arrest them as ‘sexual perverts on children,’ I’m going to call them ‘sexual perverts on a child.’

Regardless of “due process,” Judd shows little remorse in labeling sex raid suspects as “predators.”

“Because we have a very liberal – a very forgiving – criminal justice system, sometimes it’s more difficult to prove ‘beyond to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt.'”

Law enforcement used a decoy house to lure most of the 132 men, who were then arrested for arriving to meet someone they believed was an underage teen.

Nevertheless, between mistakes detectives made during some of the stings and local judges increasingly critical of police tactics in sting operations that trick suspects, courts dropped many of the charges.

Central Florida does not necessarily have a higher number of sexual offenders than other parts of the country, Judd said, but “we dig ’em out and put ’em in jail” more than law enforcement agencies in other areas.

Joining Judd was Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who serves as regional task force chair for the Florida Sheriff’s Association.

Gualtieri referred to the men as “the worst of the worst.”

Also at Tuesday’s press conference were representatives of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Air Force investigators, the Orlando Police Department, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, and former Clearwater Police Chief Tony Holloway.

One notable absence was the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

“There are several agencies – what we do is move (the stings) around,” Judd responded to questions about the HCSO no-show. “They probably contributed folks to the operation and representatives didn’t all show up today.”

Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) told WTSP through a spokesperson that the agency was aware of Judd’s operation, but it chose not to participate. HCSO does has a full-time “Internet Predator” unit, but it is reluctant to commit the resources for “To Catch a Predator”-style operations.

Instead, HCSO targets offenders participating in the spread of child porn, focusing on exploited infants and young children. Those type of arrests, the spokesperson added, tends to yield positive results on fighting sex trafficking as well as long prison terms.

WTSP/10 Investigates will be covering some of the flaws in “To Catch a Predator”-style sex stings during the Thursday and Friday 10 News 11 p.m. newscasts.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.