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Professional licensing enforcers land in court over joint raid with police

A massive raid on several Orlando, Florida, barbershops, in which the state's professional regulation agency was aided by armed police officers in body armor and masks, resulted in at least one lawsuit claiming that the raids violated the constitutional rights of the target licensees.

An August 22 decision by U.S. District Court in Orlando detailed the operation and allowed some of the complaints to proceed (Berry v. Demings).

Barber's PoleOn August 21, 2010, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, aided by the Orange Country Sheriff’s Office, conducted a large sweep operation in Pine Hills, a neighborhood near Orlando. Included in the sweep was Strictly Skillz, a barbershop owned by licensed barber Brian Berry that was suspected of hosting unlicensed cosmetologists.

According to court records, the sweep was the extension of an accidental “team-up” that occurred when Amanda Fields, a state inspector investigating a local mall barbershop, ran into Keith Vidler, an undercover police officer with the Sheriff’s Office, who was at the mall on an unrelated assignment.

After Fields described the difficult safety situations in which she often found herself while performing investigations—investigators do not have law enforcement authority—Vidler accompanied her to the mall shop. The collaboration was immediately successful, as the pair issued license citations.

Inspired by their success and Officer Vidler’s subsequent discovery that unlicensed cosmetology is actually a 2nd-degree felony, the two began discussing a series of larger operations, in which the sheriff’s department would work with the Department during future barbershop inspections. The Department, concerned about criminal activities occurring in and around local cosmetology businesses and without the ability to engage in law enforcement themselves, agreed to accept police assistance.

The two agencies planned a large one-day operation to target cosmetology businesses that had been uncooperative or violent during previous inspections. Strictly Skillz was included in the sweep because, during an inspection three years prior, barbers at the shop had refused to produce their licenses when questioned by investigators.

Two agencies collaborated, and an ambitious plan requiring the coordinated presence of a team of eight law enforcement officers and state inspectors was produced, complete with multiple layers and plans for surveillance by undercover agents.

Unsurprisingly, the actual inspection of Strictly Skillz resembled a police raid from an action film. According to barbers in the shop, several police officers—some masked, some with drawn weapons, and some wearing bullet-proof vests, in various combinations—unexpectedly rushed into the shop, halted its operations, placed zip- ties or handcuffs on the hands of at least three barbers, and closed the store, forcing the customers to leave. The Department inspectors and police officers searched the shop for half an hour but, after finding nothing amiss, freed the fettered barbershop workers and left.

Following the dramatic events of the raid, Berry and three other Strictly Skillz barbers brought suit against the Orlando County Sherriff’s Office, in which the four men claimed several constitutional violations and tortious actions.

The case was assigned to Judge Charlene Honeywell of the federal district court in Orlando, and the state defendants filed for summary judgment on various grounds of immunity. Honeywell’s ruling on that motion was the basis of the August decision.

Addressing the barbers’ complaints one by one, Honeywell first noted that, although the barbers had filed an equal protection claim based on their allegation that Strictly Skillz was singled out because the proprietors were black, they had failed to provide any evidence of bias on the part of the police.

Although the plaintiffs had filed a claim alleging their Fourth Amendment rights to privacy were violated and, although the police seemed to lack any evidence, the court ruled that the searches were, for the most part, constitutional.

The judge found that the administrative inspection of the barbershop was “not invalid,” since there was “some suspicion” of unlicensed barbering. But she allowed the lawsuit to continue over the complaints relating to the extreme show of force by police officers, the detention of barbershop employees, ejection of customers, and inspection of a storage room where no barbering services were rendered.

Judge Honeywell concluded that the search was valid. “Clearly,” she wrote, “brief observations of any unlicensed barbering that occurred in 2007 do not give rise to probable cause that would support the issuance of a warrant in 2010. In the absence of direct criminal suspicion, [sheriff’s office] and [department] representatives validly invoked their statutory authority to inspect Strictly Skillz to determine whether barbers were operating without a license. . . . Because [the] representatives had some suspicion of unlicensed barbering based on [an inspector’s] encounters and [Department] inspections at other neighborhood barbershops, the administrative inspection was not invalid.”

The involvement of the police, who lacked any “direct criminal suspicion” of activities at the barbershop, was not to investigate criminal activities, Honeywell noted, but to provide security for the Department’s representatives and “to make arrests for unlicensed barbering.”

Honeywell nevertheless had several reservations about the behavior of the security-providing police officers. The judge noted concerns about the extreme show of force that officers had used, the detention of barbershop employees, the ejection of customers, and the inspection of a storage room “where no barbering services were rendered.”

“The ‘inspection’ of Strictly Skillz,” she continued, “was in marked contrast to previous administrative inspections, which had never involved law enforcement, let alone narcotics agents,” and was excessive. Honeywell ruled that the lawsuit could continue on claims related to those activities.