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Unlicensed-practice SWAT team raid was criminal, not just “doing their jobs”

A lawsuit against two Florida deputies who were part of a 2010 raid on a barbershop may go forward, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled September 14 (Berry v. Orange County Sherriff’s Department). The deputies used overly aggressive “SWAT-like tactics,” while checking for license violations, the appeals court said. It found that the search was illegal and as a result, the deputies are not protected by immunity.

The raid occurred when the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and the Orange Country Sheriff’s Office conducted a large sweep operation in Pine Hills, a neighborhood near Orlando. Strictly Skillz, a barbershop owned by licensed barber Brian Berry and suspected of hosting unlicensed cosmetologists, was included in the sweep. No violations were discovered.

PLR reported on this unlicensed practice raid in the July/ August 2013 issue. This year’s ruling concerned two deputies, Keith Vidler and Travis Leslie, who claimed that they should be immune from any civil litigation brought against them “for doing their jobs.” But the judges emphatically rejected their position, noting their raid was carried out without a warrant and calling their conduct criminal.

The judges described the raid as a “scene right out of a Hollywood movie,” with officers playing the part of rogue cowboy heroes, or overzealous villains, seeking to wreak havoc by abusing their power, “Unlike previous inspections of Strictly Skillz, … the August 21 [2010] search was executed with a tremendous and disproportionate show of force, and no evidence exists that such force was justified.”

The Eleventh Circuit strongly condemned the raid four years ago. “With some team members dressed in ballistic vests and masks, and with guns drawn, the deputies rushed into their target destinations, handcuffed the stunned occupants—and demanded to see their barbers’ licenses,” the court wrote.

The deputies were out of bounds in using a SWAT-team approach to merely check whether or not barbers were properly licensed, the court said. Adding to the improper nature of the raid, it was also revealed that inspectors from the Florida’s Department of Business Professional Regulation (DBPR) had conducted an inspection of the Strictly Skillz establishment just two days prior to the raid. That inspection found no infractions of any kind either.

The establishment was one of several raided in predominantly minority areas, and deputy sheriffs claimed they suspected unlawful activity was taking place.

The DBPR fired several employees and settled out of court with numerous barbers, including Brian Berry. The Sheriff’s Office, however, concluded that its deputies did nothing wrong.