Tampa's head prosecutor spent ten months prosecuting a shoplifting case, despite clear video evidence that proved the defendant was framed. Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober’s office wasted time and tax-payer money prosecuting a 57-year-old disabled mother for stealing $29 of flea medicine—allegedly because Ober didn't want to upset the local Walmart.
In early 2014, Vicki Carll was walking out of a Tampa Walmart when she "two men grabbed her, manhandled her and dragged her back into the store," according to WTSP. From their report:
At the time Carll says she was baffled. “I didn't know what was happening, I thought I was being mugged, actually, because I had $500 in my hand and I didn't know what was going on, I had no idea.”
It turned out Carll was being arrested for shoplifting. The security guard who was waiting on a bench next to the exit said she stole flea medication worth $29.
According to a civil suit Carll filed against Walmart early this week, Carll had examined the flea medication while in the store, but put it back on the shelf once she realized it was the wrong kind. She hadn't realized that a "floor walker," a pseudo security-guard whose job is to identify shoplifters, had been following her around the store. Carll says that the floor walker, Arismendy Rosario, picked up the flea medication, planted the evidence, and then waited for her to leave the store. From WTSP:
[Carll's Attorney Barry] Cohen claims this was an elaborate plan by the security guard to frame his client. In a lawsuit filed Monday afternoon, Cohen points out the security tape shows the guard, who just started that day, dumped something on the floor from a box and then seconds later accused Carll of stealing that item.
According to Cohen, a veteran attorney, “I've never seen a case I can think about where the bad guy, in this case the Walmart employee, was actually caught on video planting the evidence."
According to Carll's complaint, the video footage shows:
- Mr. Rosario himself removing the individual pet medication doses from its box as he sat on the bench awaiting Ms. Carll to arrive from the checkout register […]
- Mr. Rosario placing the individual medication doses on the ground underneath the bench where he sat and waited for Ms. Carll to arrive from the checkout register […]
- Rosario and [another employee] forcefully dragging Ms. Carll back inside the store entrance to the point next to Rosario’s bench under which he had hidden the medication. […]
- Mr. Rosario reaching back under the bench to retrieve the pet medications from where he had placed them.
Mr. Rosario then accused Ms. Carll of stealing the medication. It was Mr. Rosario's first day on the job. Carll called the incident ”the most humiliating thing you could ever go through.”
Despite the fact that video evidence clearly proved that Carll had not stolen anything, Ober's office arrested and charged Carll. Prosecutors spent ten months of time and money on the case, refusing to drop it and ultimately taking her to trial.
The jury took less than sixty seconds to acquit Ms. Carll of the crime. WTSP reported that one juror “said it seemed obvious the guard planted the evidence and couldn't believe the state wasted time and money with this case.”
As is custom in shoplifting cases, Walmart could have asked the state's attorney's office not to press charges. But instead they asked prosecutors to bring charges, “apparently decid[ing] to carry the charade of criminal proceedings to their ultimate conclusion by jury trial just to try to protect itself from civil liability by not admitting the outrageous wrongdoing of its own employees,” according to the lawsuit.
Ober's office should have refused to prosecute. The video evidence demonstrated that Carll had been framed. Not to mention the allegedly stolen items were only worth $29 anyway. But in the end, Ober spent ten months of time and tax payer dollars on a case that was the definition of open-and-shut.
Why would Ober's office decide to charge her and take her to trial? Carll claims it's because Ober cared about Walmart instead of justice. Carll filed a lawsuit this week against the retail giant, as well as against Rosario, and the other employee who restrained her. From her complaint:
Unfortunately, the decision by the Hillsborough County State Attorney to proceed with the charges against Ms. Carll and to take this farce all the way through a jury trial speaks more to the desire to maintain WAL-MART’s good graces, political influence and financial support in an election year than it does to the duty of a prosecutor to seek the truth and to subject a citizen to criminal charges only when there is a valid and good faith basis to believe that the person is, in fact, guilty of those charges. That sense of duty was conspicuously absent in this case, according to Ms. Carll’s jury.
Ober is up for re-election on Tuesday. He's running against Democrat Andrew Warren, a former federal prosecutor.