OKEECHOBEE — Some 40 cases of drugs found in random searches at the music festival gate won’t be prosecuted.
Thursday was not a good day for prosecutor Ashley Albright as he poured over more than 60 drug arrests made at the Okeechobee Music Fest, and determined 40 of those had to be dropped.
The Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) made a large number of drug arrests at the four-day outdoor concert and confiscated vast amounts of drugs.
But, after closer examination, Mr. Albright found he could not prosecute more than half of those cases.
Of the 40 cases being dropped, five of those arrests were on trafficking charges. Still, there are three individuals whose drug-trafficking cases will go before a judge.
“Out of the arrests at the music festival there are 40 I’ve identified that I cannot proceed with criminal charges. Five of those are for trafficking and the rest are for possession,” said Mr. Albright.
“With a limited budget and limited resources, the sheriff’s office did a wonderful job controlling the music fest,” he added.
“The cases I cannot prosecute are all administrative-type searches done at the entry point by law enforcement at the request of event organizers. That resulted in seizing a large amount of drugs that already kept them from being used or sold.
“But, because the searches were done as administrative searches, they cannot be prosecuted,” he added.
Mr. Albright, an assistant state attorney in Okeechobee, explained administrative-type searches as those done on a person entering the facility without probable cause. And without probable cause, the case cannot be prosecuted.
The cases he cannot proceed with are arrests made by law enforcement personnel who just randomly selected a vehicle and searched it. Then, if drugs were found, people were arrested.
“All of the arrests inside the park I can still prosecute. All of those are still perfectly fine,” he pointed out. “It’s just the random searches that can’t be prosecuted. Those 40 cases are just the random stops of someone entering the gate.”
The state prosecutor went on to say those trafficking cases filed against Joel Hernandez of Okeechobee, Keelye Lockhart and Ahmed Mohamed will proceed.
Hernandez, 34, N.E. 22nd St., was charged with trafficking in cocaine and grand theft. He was initially arrested for stealing a golf cart at the event and was then found to have 34.2 grams of cocaine, stated an OCSO arrest report.
Records at the Okeechobee County Jail indicate Hernandez has been released on bond.
Lockhart and Mohamed are still being held on bond. Lockhart, 25, is charged with trafficking in methamphetamine and is being held on $100,000 bond.
Mohamed, 22, is charged with trafficking in methamphetamine. He’s also charged with possession of synthetic cathinone, possession of cocaine, possession of MDMA, possession of marijuana and resisting a law enforcement officer with violence. He is being held without bond.
Both Lockhart and Mohamed reportedly refused to give their addresses to law enforcement.
Mr. Albright further explained that even though tickets to the March 3-6 event indicated the bearer may be subject to search, such warrantless searches cannot be prosecuted in the State of Florida. He then alluded to a ruling by the Second District of Florida District Court of Appeal.
In an April 12, 2000, decision that court ruled: “Music festival patrons were not advised of their right to refuse a search for drugs, as a factor in determining whether patrons provided implied consent to warrantless searches by police officers, where the officers did not tell the patrons of their right to refuse, and there were no signs advising patrons of this right.”
The court’s ruling stemmed from appeals filed by individuals who were arrested on drug charges by Pasco County deputies and corrections officers near the entry gate at a music festival.
The Second DCA went to rule that a patron’s refusal to consent to a search for drugs would result in their not only losing their right to attend the concert, but also the price of the ticket.
As for the local concert, pointed out Mr. Albright, patrons were not told they could refuse to be searched and, if they did refuse, the price of the ticket would be refunded.
Even though he can’t prosecute some of the cases, Mr. Albright congratulated the sheriff’s office on seizing a large amount of drugs.
He also explained that those arrested will have their bonds returned, if they posted a cash bond. If they went through a bondsman, the payment the arrested individual gave the bondsman will not be refunded.
Prior to next year’s event, Mr. Albright said he would like to sit down with local law enforcement and come up with a procedure to ensure that not only will drugs be confiscated, but those caught with the illegal drugs can be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Sheriff Paul May said although he doesn’t totally agree with Mr. Albright, he does respect his opinion.
“As the sheriff of Okeechobee County, my job and number one priority is to keep illegal and highly dangerous drugs out of Okeechobee County. My office has worked very hard for the last 11 years to accomplish this,” he said. “Ashley Albright met with me yesterday (Wednesday) and explained to me why he was not going to prosecute some of these cases we made at the music festival. Mr. Albright has worked very closely with us in the past and is a very good prosecutor.”
The sheriff went on to say a large amount of drugs were confiscated at the festival. Those drugs included cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD, ecstasy, mollies, THC wax, marijuana chewing gum, a large amount of marijuana, xanax, ketamine, mushrooms and substances that are still being tested to determine what they are.
“We are very happy that no one died of an overdose and, to date, we do not have any reported rapes, which we understand have occurred at other music festivals around the country,” added the sheriff. “I am not against the music festival, but I do believe we must find some way to reduce the amount of drugs that were present.
“We will never know what might have happened and who might have suffered if we had not taken the action we did. If I have to sit down with a family and discuss the death or rape of a loved one, I have to do this knowing we have done everything we could to keep this from happening,” Sheriff May said.
Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News