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A Florida Sheriff’s Dramatic Drug Raid Went Viral, But It Wasn’t What It Seemed

In the ‘fentanyl’ bust at a ‘narcotics house,’ no opioids were seized at all.

Sheriff Darryl Daniels of Clay County, Florida, is positioning himself as a social media celebrity in the ongoing war on opioids. In January, Daniels’s office filmed the aftermath of a SWAT raid that he and masked officers  carried out on a so-called narcotics house on a tree-lined suburban street in Orange Park, Florida. The video documenting the raid—in what the sheriff dubbed “Operation: You Were Warned”—went viral, garnering 30,000 shares and 3.4 million views on Facebook.

The raid video opens by panning over a line of young people handcuffed on the curb. The camera then moves to a group of officers, wearing helmets and backed up by two armored cars. The video finds Sheriff Daniels, who announces to the viewer that criminals must leave his county or face the consequences. The camera follows him to the house, briefly focusing on a broken window before Daniels opens the door. Standing in the raided home, Daniels takes a large swig of his morning cup of coffee and declares, “Fifteen going to jail, three big gulps.”

Despite the sheriff’s announcement, the “raid” resulted in only five adult arrests and one juvenile arrest, according to Elaine Brown, a lead records specialist at the sheriff’s office. According to police records reviewed by The Appeal, the drug seizures from this “narcotics house” were fairly small scale and did not include opioids. In an email to The Appeal, Sgt. Keith Smith, an office  spokesman, clarified that during the the raid, narcotics deputies found what they believed to be 1.2 grams of heroin and fentanyl after an initial field test, but subsequent tests revealed the seizure was not a controlled substance.

Police actually nabbed most of the suspects for marijuana, of which they found less than two ounces during the raid. Of the five adult arrest reports, four indicated  marijuana possession, with three charged for drug equipment. Two of the individuals charged for marijuana had less than 20 grams, according to the documents. The fifth suspect was nabbed for positive field tests of MDMA and a few grams of cocaine. It is not known what substances, if any, were mentioned in the sixth arrest report, which was not released because the subject was a juvenile.

The Clay County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to The Appeal‘s inquiries about whether the department considered issuing public corrections about the initial arrest figures and drug seizures posted on Facebook. The department also did not respond to questions about the decision to film the aftermath of the operation and about their use of armored vehicles.

One former Clay County sheriff’s deputy, who requested anonymity citing concerns over police harassment, told The Appeal in a phone call that he wasn’t surprised that the operation didn’t turn up opioids. “Of course they didn’t, there never was any,” he said. Asked about the errant initial field test, the former deputy pointed out that “false drug findings on site happen all the time.”

“The really good ones cost money, but those take away your probable cause,” he said, referring to arrests and police searches for which error-prone drug test field kits can provide legal pretext. “It’s probably the cheapest ones they could get to do the minimum standards for an investigation.” Clay County Sheriff’s Office spokersperson Keith Smith said that the department recently acquired field kits from a Florida company called MEDTECH Forensics, but did not confirm whether these devices specifically were used during the January 5th drug bust.

The former deputy also argued that the marijuana charges were overkill. According to sheriff’s office documents reviewed by The Appeal, 34.8 grams of marijuana were found in the house, yet two individuals arrested in the house were charged with possession of more than 20 grams of marijuana.

The drug quantities found suggest the raid targeted a house of small-time users, not major traffickers, Joe Frank Martinez, a border sheriff in Val Verde County, Texas, said in a phone interview with The Appeal. “This would probably would be personal use,” said Martinez. “If you’re talking about ounces, that’d be users.”

Martinez added that in his jurisdiction, SWAT teams and armored vehicles would not be used for low-level users, unless police had clear reason to believe there was a threat at hand. The Clay County Sheriff’s Office Facebook post about the raid justified the need for the “safety equipment” citing past reports of shots being fired and fights taking place at the house. In addition to the use of armored vehicles and SWAT team personnel, four flashbang grenades were used during the raid, despite the fact no guns or other weapons were found during the operation, according to police records reviewed by The Appeal.

Individuals swept up in the raid argued that Daniels’s public presentation of their home as a drug house was overblown and complained about what they perceived as intrusions on their privacy. “I don’t understand why they have to take camera footage of my house,” said one young man, who told News4Jax that he was facing charges.

This raid is not Daniels’s first success, at least in terms of social media publicity. Last summer, Daniels shared another video of himself describing the aftermath of what he called another narcotics operation in which he issued his trademark warning to criminals and gulped down a thermos of coffee.

Through such highly publicized operations, Daniels has jumped into the national spotlight as a drug warrior. At a press conference last year, he announced homicide charges were being brought against a drug dealer whose client had overdosed after taking fentanyl, according to the Florida Times Union. Daniels appeared on HLN, a CNN-affiliated national news network, to discuss the case and his department announced that its detectives would investigate all 49 overdose deaths from 2016 as homicides. Since his election in 2016, the office’s drug-related arrests have increased.

These public appearances have attracted significant publicity from local press and media. But some locals express skepticism about the sheriff’s frequent attempts to stay in the spotlight. The former Clay County deputy called the raids “a damn joke.”

“He’s creating a self-aggrandizing mythology,” said the former deputy. “It’s all choreographed—such a chicken shit bust, instead of the MRAPs [military vehicles] and a SWAT team, they could have used two deputies for that.”