Former Florida Deputy Jailed for Fabricating Drug Evidence
During his tenure as a deputy from May 2017 to January 2018, Steven O’Leary made 80 drug-related arrests. An arrest warrant says O’Leary arrested 26 people accused of having drugs on them who either did not have illegal drugs or who did not have the actual amount or type of drugs he said they did.
Matthew Crull was arrested by O’Leary on December 5, 2018. Crull was asleep in a used van he had recently purchased when O’Leary approached him and made a search. During that search, O’Leary pulled a plastic bag cinched with a wire tie from the inside of the driver’s door. O’Leary field-tested the substance and determined it was 92 grams of heroin.
That landed Crull in jail on drug trafficking charges, which carried a possible 25-year prison sentence. A lab test determined the substance was Tide detergent. Officials soon determined that O’Leary made numerous arrests based on field tests he said were drugs but were later determined to be legal substances. O’Leary, 28, was fired on January 15, 2019. Officials released 11 people from jail on January 28. Crull was released on January 14 after serving 41 days.
“I’m as bewildered as you are,” said Martin County Sheriff William Snyder. “We’re trying to undo whatever harm was done.”
That included looking at all the cases O’Leary made arrests upon. Officials resubmitted 120 substances O’Leary identified as illegal to a regional lab for retesting. “There’s ample reasonable doubt that all of his cases are probably headed for the ash heap,” said Snyder.
The Sheriff’s Office offered to help the 11 people who were released to expunge their records and to pay their court costs. Some cases are more difficult to rectify because many defendants accept pleas to get out of jail.
Melissa Morales faced such a situation. O’Leary stopped her on an evening in late October 2018 because she did not have lights on her bike. A search of her purse uncovered what O’Leary described as a “white, rock like substance.” Morales, 37, said it was “just a rock.” A field test alleged concluded the substance was methamphetamine.
O’Leary took Morales to jail and reported that during a search he “observed a white substance fall out of Melissa’s pant leg and onto the ground . . . the same substance I had located in Melissa’s purse.” That substance also field-tested positive for methamphetamine, and he charged her with possession of the drug and introducing contraband into a correctional facility.
Morales spent 49 days in jail before entering a guilty plea. She was sentenced to six months in jail, assessed hundreds of dollars in fines, and had her driver’s license revoked.
She was freed on January 16, 2018, after a judge granted a motion filed by Assistant Public Defender Shane Manship. The motion was based “newly discovered issues surrounding the arresting officer in this case.” It was proven the substance in Morales’ possession was not a controlled substance.
A criminal investigation ensued after O’Leary was fired. He was arrested on July 29, 2019, and held on a $1 million bond. He was charged with 17 counts of official misconduct, 13 counts of false imprisonment, and eight counts of tampering with or fabricating evidence. He pleaded not guilty.
“Mr. O’Leary is going to be thrown into a cell, and he’s going to sit there just like my clients had to,” said Lance Richard, an attorney representing 20 of the people that O’Leary arrested on drug charges. “The only difference is he actually did something wrong and my clients sat in jail after being falsely accused of doing things.”
Sources: washingtonpost.com, theappeal.org, palmbeachdailynews.com, tcpalm.com