FLORIDIANS ARE SUING A COP FIRED FOR PLANTING DRUGS IN THEIR VEHICLES

By Katie Rose Quandt, The Appeal

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty images.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty images.

In October 2017, Derek Benefield was driving in the Florida Panhandle’s Jackson County when he was pulled over for allegedly swerving into the opposite lane. Once at the car, sheriff’s deputy Zachary Wester claimed to smell marijuana and conducted a search of the vehicle, which, he reported, turned up methamphetamine and marijuana. Despite insisting the drugs weren’t his, Benefield, who was already on probation, was arrested, charged $1,100 in fines and court fees, and sentenced to one year in county jail.

Benefield was seven months into his sentence when, in September 2018, the state attorney’s office dropped his case and those of 118 others. Largely thanks to the diligence of one assistant state attorney, Wester was suspected of routinely planting drugs during traffic stops over his two years in the department.

Last month, Benefield and eight others filed a federal lawsuit accusing Wester and two other deputies of planting drugs and making illegal arrests, and the Jackson County sheriff’s office of negligence. The suit accuses all the defendants of violating the individuals’ civil and constitutional rights through illegal search, seizure, detention, prosecution, and incarceration. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Marie Mattox, told The Appeal the suit represents “only the tip of the iceberg,” and she plans to add another 18 to 20 plaintiffs. At least 37 people have filed lawsuits against Wester at the state level. The sheriff’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit.

A criminal investigation into Wester’s behavior was opened last August by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, but no charges have been filed. Mattox said that, for the first time, three of her clients were subpoenaed for interviews in connection with that investigation in early June.

It didn’t take Christina Pumphrey long to become familiar with Zachary Wester’s name. When she was hired as an assistant state attorney at the 14th Judicial Circuit in May 2018, her duties included reviewing evidence before filing charges in several categories of arrests, including drug possession. “This is an exaggeration, but it felt like his name was on half the cases,” Pumphrey told The Appeal. “It was seriously disproportionate.”

As she watched the body camera footage from Wester’s arrests, Pumphrey grew concerned: His vehicle searches were not always conducted legally, and his written affidavits didn’t always match what she saw in the videos. People’s reactions to their arrests also seemed unusual. “It wasn’t, ‘OK, crap, I’m busted,’” she said. “It was, ‘What do you mean?’” Pumphrey began looking more closely at Wester’s arrests.

When the internal affairs division of the sheriff’s office heard she was looking into Wester’s arrests and asked for more information, she shared several body camera videos and explained what to look for. Within weeks, the sheriff’s office pulled Wester off the road and asked the law enforcement department to investigate.

More than 100 people who Wester had arrested during his two years on the force were still out on bond or—if their arrest had violated probation—behind bars. Yet the state attorney’s office did not immediately move to drop the cases. At the time, Pumphrey said, she was “getting an explicit instruction to not dismiss the cases.”

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Olivia McDowellComment