Hillsborough County, FL — In the land of the free, attempting to earn money in certain professions without first paying the state for the privilege of doing so can and will get you kidnapped and extorted. These laws are applied to children behind lemonade stands as well as adults selling flowers. The state callously and with extreme prejudice has been documented arresting people, or even beating up women to enforce these licensing laws.
In one of the largest and most egregious cases we’ve ever seen, cops squandered countless resources waging an elaborate undercover scheme to arrest 118 handymen for trying to earn a living without first paying the state to obtain a license.
Brave deputies with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office went undercover in Operation House Hunters to nab the 118 contractors attempting to earn an honest living instead of robbing, stealing, begging, or collecting welfare. The contractors are accused of performing jobs that totaled over $540,000 worth of work. The horror.
The unsuspecting contractors were lured by Hillsborough’s finest to one of five homes where they were filmed doing work like installing recessed lighting or painting — then they were arrested for it. It takes a special kind of person to unapologetically trick an honest laborer into doing work just so you can arrest them for failing to obtain the correct state license.
If you listen to the police, however, it’s as if every one of these folks were hardened criminals preying on the town.
“These 118 con men and women were posing as contractors & preying on innocent homeowners in Hillsborough County, who were just looking to repair or improve their home,” said Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister at a Tuesday press conference. The department then proudly displayed a poster of their mugshots as if they were child molesters or bank robbers.
Sheriff: “We have arrested 118 people in an investigation we called, ‘Operation House Hunters.’ These 118 con men & women were posing as contractors & preying on innocent homeowners in Hillsborough County, who were just looking to repair or improve their home.” pic.twitter.com/5TQyb1QteZ
— HCSO #teamhcso (@HCSOSheriff) February 4, 2020
As Reason magazine points out, only eight of the people arrested as part of Operation House Hunter had criminal records, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department. The other 110 were arrested for first-time offenses. The bulk of those charges were for “unlawful acts in the capacity of a contractor,” a misdemeanor offense that can come with a $1,000 fine and a 12-month jail sentence. Repeat violations can result in a felony charge.
No one here is advocating for homeowners to blindly hire anyone who comes to their door. Before hiring someone to do a job in your home, you should definitely make sure they come with references, are insured, and can show you prior work. If you are hiring someone for expert work like electrical or HVAC, certification is a must. But this is the job of the homeowner to assess these situations — not the police state.
Touting the fact that they arrested 8 people with criminal histories is a sham to make this undercover sting seem like it was worth it. However, do not be fooled, these cops, like con men, have ulterior motives as well.
Leslie Sammis, a criminal defense lawyer in Tampa, Florida has represented clients who have been caught up in these most unscrupulous schemes. He says these stings almost never result in arresting actual criminals.
“The real con men that are trying to trick homeowners are usually too experienced to get caught up in one of these types of sting operations. So the stings tend to catch someone that crosses the line in an unsophisticated way,” Sammis told Reason.
Sammis explained that the undercover cops will hire handymen on the pretext of performing work that doesn’t require a license and then trick them into doing it mid-job. It’s nothing short of entrapment.
“When the handyman says no, then the undercover detective moves the conversation to something else and then comes back to the question later in a different way,” says Sammis. “By the time the handyman gets to the location, they want to make the homeowner happy and end up agreeing to perform work that they didn’t intend on doing when they first arrived. The undercover detective[s] are just creating a crime that probably wouldn’t occur otherwise.”
Sammis says that these cops couldn’t care less about homeowner safety, which is illustrated by the fact that very few actual criminals are caught. Also, while these cops are devoting resources to arresting handymen, actual crimes in which there are actual victims, go unpunished and uninvestigated. Instead of solving or helping to prevent the further victimization of innocent citizens, these elaborate stings are used to bolster the city’s bottom line.
“These sting operations rake in big money in fines and court costs,” Sammis says. “Catching real criminals actually committing a crime is much harder.”