On November 14, 1997, a group of Manatee County Sheriff’s officers assigned to the Delta Division, an anti-narcotics trafficking unit, broke in the door of Sarah Smith’s Bradenton, Florida home.
Clad in black masks and raid equipment, the officers ordered Smith, 19, to the floor and ransacked the home. One of the officers came up with a Tylenol bottle which he said contained crack cocaine.
Smith was arrested and charged with possession of crack cocaine.
A day later, child welfare workers removed Smith’s 14-month-old daughter from the home and put her in the home of a foster family.
In February 1998, Smith went on trial and despite her denials, she was convicted by a jury after the officers testified that Smith threw the bottle across the room and later admitted to them that the cocaine was hers.
She was sentenced to a year of house arrest, followed by six months probation and fined $400. Instead of serving the house arrest, she opted for 30 days in jail.
Prompted by complaints from Smith and others who had been arrested by members of the Delta Division, which had been touted for its crackdown on the drug trade in Manatee County, the FBI began investigating. Ultimately, five sheriff’s officers assigned to the unit were charged and convicted of planting drugs on people they suspected were involved in the drug trade.
In October 1999, Smith learned that one of the Delta Division officers in her case had admitted planting the cocaine in the Tylenol. She moved for dismissal of her conviction.
On February 1, 2000, her conviction was vacated and the charge was dismissed.
In 2001, Smith filed a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit against Manatee County and the officers. The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount in 2004.
– Maurice Possley