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Church and State

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd's mission from God to eliminate obscenity knows no bounds

Photo: , License: N/A, Created: 2011:02:15 00:13:16

Though obscenity is legally determined by a method devised by the Supreme Court, much of what is defined as obscene depends on the "community standards" in the area in which the charge is brought. In other words, a video that can be legally sold in New York may be illegal in Polk County. And once a form of expression is adjudicated as obscene, the First Amendment no longer protects it.

Walters says that, of the many obscenity-based charges Judd has brought directly or indirectly against his clients, none of them has ever gone before a jury. He says that's because Judd and his allies in the State Attorney's Office have devised a strategy that ensures that no one will ever want to take their cases to court: They intimidate their targets with hefty charges, then follow up with what seem like comparatively generous plea bargains.

"It worked very effectively," Walters says. "Without any due process, without anything other than muscle flexing, threats and bad-faith prosecution." As an example of how this works, he explains what happened in the case of Tammy Robinson, a Lakeland woman who was arrested in March 1999 for operating a website that allowed paying users to view nude photos of her. The case was handled by the Polk County Sheriff's Computer Crimes Unit, which was created by Judd in 1995 when he was major of special operations and the Internet was still in its infancy.

The county didn't go looking for Robinson - rather, she had turned to the Polk County Sheriff's Office for help after she received a death threat from someone who described her home in detail and told her that she'd be forced to watch the rape and murder of her three young children. She had originally taken her complaint to the FBI, but the agency told her to contact local authorities.

Once the Polk County Computer Crimes Unit had a copy of the threat, which had been sent via e-mail in response to Robinson's website, investigators decided her online activities were more unsettling than the death threat. She and her husband were arrested - Walters says that a team of officers forced her from the shower and "paraded her around naked," laughing and cheering - and charged with wholesale promotion of obscene materials. Each faced up to five years in prison. Walters' firm responded with a federal civil rights lawsuit against Charlie Gates, the detective in charge of the case.

In January 2001, both parties dropped their respective lawsuits, but the sheriff's office came out of the fight the victor in the battle: The Robinsons paid $2,000 to the county to cover the cost of the investigation and agreed not to be connected with a "sexually oriented" business within the three counties that make up the 10th Judicial Circuit, which includes Polk County. By then, Robinson's husband had already lost his job at Publix, and Walters' firm had spent more than half a million dollars in legal fees on the case.

After the settlement, the Robinsons moved to the Tampa Bay area and resumed operation of the website from there. They could not be reached for comment.

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