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Tim Cushing
Tech Dirt
April 5, 2014

Anyone can make a mistake. The best solution is to acknowledge it, make amends if needed, and move forward, striving to learn from the experience. Far too many entities opt instead for bluster, obfuscation and intimidation, rather than deal with the consequences of their screwup. This is especially true for law enforcement agencies, who often use everything in their power to avoid having to admit anything went wrong, much less take responsibility for it.

 Photo of a raid taking place as part of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Operation Mallorca

Photo of a raid taking place as part of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Operation Mallorca

Here’s what went wrong recently, to the detriment of a person who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time: his own house.

A Benedict Avenue resident contends Huron County deputies forced their way into his home Tuesday without a search warrant.

John Collins, who lives in one unit of a triplex home at 114 Benedict Ave., contends deputies got the wrong address when they executed the search warrant. The warrant was for the unit next to his, he said.

The deputies handcuffed him and left him lying on the floor in his unit for 20 minutes after they realized the mistake, Collins said.

Bad enough, but it gets worse.

They tore through his home, he said, after cuffing him and forcing him to the floor facedown. “They searched my whole house, pulled stuff out my closet, broke a couple knick knacks” he said.

One deputy also stepped on his tablet, shattering its screen. Another broke a ceramic decoration that once belonged to his now-deceased son, Collins said…

Two deputies must have realized the mistake, Collins said, because they recognized him from their school days and had to have known he was not the man identified in the search warrant. The deputies went next door, he said. They made contact with the residents there — who were later arrested for drug trafficking.

But six or so other deputies continued searching Collins’ home.

How did the offending deputies rectify the situation after they realized they had both the wrong home and the wrong person? They uncuffed him and left, as if all of the above had never happened.

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Collins filed a complaint against the Huron County Sheriff’s Department and asked for a copy of the search warrant. This is when the department went on full lockdown with some help from the local judiciary.

Huron County Common Pleas Court Judge Timothy Cardwell issued a secret gag order March 21 to seal the search warrant. The gag order is also secret, Cardwell’s court clerk said after the Register asked for a copy of the order.

Even Collins’ complaint itself is now under seal, and the Sheriff’s Department is circling the wagons, digging a moat around the circle and filling that moat with blustery statements and unanswered phones.

First, the department flatout denied it had done anything wrong, calling Collins’ story a “rumor” that was “highly inaccurate.” And, who knows, maybe that would still be up for debate (citizen v. cop and all that), but then the department went and had the complaint sealed. And the warrant. And the gag order itself. It also issued a contradictory statement a few days later.

“We finished a search warrant at 114-1/2 Benedict Ave,” he said Thursday. “Our next move then was to check on an individual who may have a warrant in close proximity.”

Patrick said deputies “became aware of warrants for an individual in close proximity, which was next door.”

Now, the story has changed. According to this narrative, the department supposedly had a warrant for Collins’ address but then decided to pursue a different warrant after tossing the first house for twenty minutes while its resident lay face down on the floor, handcuffed. Warrant news must travelreally slowly in Huron County, though. The warrant that deputies “became aware of” during their search of the wrong address was issued in 2012.

From that point on, the department (wisely, or at least as close to “wise” as any of this gets) decided to cut the lines of communication, as Matt Westerhold of the Sandusky Register notes in his description of the department’s “Plan B.”

As Sheriff’s Howard’s spokesman, make yourself as unavailable and be unfriendly as possible to any reporter who has questions about the inconsistent story you’re trying to make sure the public hears.

Still, the department (via Capt. Ted Patrick) continues to insist that it did nothing wrong. But it’s completely unwilling to provide any evidence to back that assertion up. Instead, it expects to just push its way through the mess it’s created without ever having to explain exactly what went on that night, all with the implicit blessing of a local judge.