The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office will no longer present arrest warrants to the State Attorney's Office for review prior to having a judge sign off on them.
The policy change, enacted last week, brings the Sheriff’s Office closer to the way other law enforcement agencies in Florida obtain warrant approval, according to spokeswoman Michele Nicholson.
It also “makes the process more efficient and speedy without the delays created by an additional SAO review process,” Nicholson said.
For years, acting under a judicial order first issued in 1982, lawyers in the First Judicial Circuit State Attorney's Office reviewed warrants for sufficiency of probable cause — to determine whether more evidence could be collected or if further investigation of a case was warranted, said Bill Bishop, the chief assistant for the State Attorney's Office in Okaloosa County.
Bishop said the reviews typically take no more than 24 hours to complete. He said the decision to halt the review process was made solely by the Sheriff’s Office.
“We were aware the change was being made,” Bishop said. “It doesn’t change anything the State Attorney’s Office does. We are going to review cases as they come to us as we have done forever.”
Former Circuit Court Judge Jere Tolton signed the administrative order, which apparently impacts only law enforcement agencies in Okaloosa County.
Officials in Crestview and Fort Walton Beach said there are no immediate plans to change existing city procedure that includes turning warrants over to the State Attorney's Office for review. Okaloosa County Clerk of Court J.D. Peacock said he had received no word that Tolton’s court order had been officially rescinded.
Circuit Judge Michael Flowers, the administrative judge for Okaloosa County, was unavailable for comment Monday.
The order established the review process with the stated purpose to “ensure the law enforcement investigation thoroughly reflects the readily ascertainable facts surrounding the allegations of criminal conduct.”
Tolton's court order had gone largely unnoticed for years before county resident Gene Earley latched onto it and began wielding it in complaints to the governor, the head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the FBI and even President Donald Trump.
A former federal investigator, Earley contends the State Attorney's Office has violated the court order and used the ill-defined powers provided by the review process to protect Okaloosa County School District employees and a former deputy who should be facing child abuse-related charges.
He claims the State Attorney's Office “unequally and unfairly subjected and subordinated the sheriff’s constitutional and statutory duties to those of the State Attorney’s Office; and, provided the OSA with an unconstitutional oversight and control of the sheriff’s official functions.”
The State Attorney's Office in September 2017 rejected warrant applications for six Kenwood Elementary School teachers and staff who admitted during a Sheriff’s Office investigation that they, as mandated reporters, had failed to notify the Department of Children and Families of possible child abuse.
That same month arrest warrants were issued for Kenwood teacher Marlynn Stillions, former Kenwood Principal Angelyn Vaughan and former School District Inv. Arden Farley. Stillions was charged with child abuse and Vaughan and Farley with failing to report child abuse. They are scheduled to face trial Sept. 11.
Earley said he learned that the State Attorney’s Office reviewed law enforcement warrants when he began asking Sheriff Larry Ashley questions about the six unissued warrants.
In January, the State Attorney's Office rejected a warrant to arrest another Okaloosa teacher the Sheriff’s Office had found probable cause to charge with child abuse, Earley states in his complaint. And a warrant application was also set aside in the case of Sheriff’s deputy Glenn Hand, who admitted during an internal investigation to making threats to an alleged victim in the school district case as well as his own superior officers.
In an email, Ashley said the State Attorney’s Office application of the judicial order had no bearing on his agency’s decision to halt the review process.
The decision was made with no input from Earley, but was made as part of a policy review “occurring in conjunction with a move to e-warrants,” Ashley said.