Seminole, Florida – All charges have been dropped against an alleged child molester who was facing a potential life sentence, after the court determined that an investigator lied in order to get a warrant to search the suspect’s home.
“Had it not contained false statements and not omitted certain material facts, no reasonably prudent judge or magistrate would have signed the warrant,” the judge’s order read, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
James Rybicki, 63, was facing charges of video voyeurism, lewd and lascivious molestation, promoting sexual performance by a child, and child porn possession, Spectrum News reported.
The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office formally dropped the charges against him on Tuesday.
“I do hope, at least through this process, we’ve been able to tell them – and they can agree – that police conduct just shouldn’t go unchecked, regardless of what the behaviors are they think should be stopped,” Rybicki’s attorney, Lucas Fleming, told WFTS.
The decision to drop charges against Rybicki was made after Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge William Burgess granted a motion to dismiss all evidence that had been obtained as a result of a Dec. 13, 2016 search of Rybicki’s home, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
That evidence included photographs and a video that showed Rybicki molesting a 10-year-old girl in 2014, according to Spectrum News.
The investigation into Rybicki began after a 13-year-old girl went to detectives with her grandmother and told them that Rybicki had photographed her trying on swimsuits in his home when she was approximately 10 years old, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
The girl said she tried to delete the photos from his phone after he left it in the room, but that she wasn’t sure that she had succeeded.
Detectives determined that the types of photographs the girl had described would likely be classified as child erotica, and that it would not meet the legal requirements to be labeled as child pornography, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
As investigators looked into Rybicki’s history, they learned that he had previously been charged with two felony counts of possession of child pornography and one felony count of lewd and lascivious conduct back in 2000, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Those charges were ultimately reduced to three misdemeanor charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Rybicki was convicted of the lesser charges, and was ordered to serve one year in jail.
Since the photographs the 13-year old described were not considered to be child pornography, investigators decided to request a search warrant under the premise of a false imprisonment investigation instead – a charge Burgess later determined they had no intention of filing.
The judge said the detectives simply used the potential charge in order to obtain a warrant so they could get into Rybicki’s home.
Their true intention was to locate evidence to support child pornography charges, Burgess wrote.
“The request for a search warrant to look for evidence of false imprisonment was simply a ruse to allow the police to enter Rybicki’s residence to look for evidence of other crimes for which there was no probable cause to search,” the judge’s order read, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Burgess said he was especially concerned about a section of the search warrant application where Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Detective Michael Alvarez claimed to have asked the 13-year-old girl’s grandmother if she had given permission for the child to be inside Rybicki’s home.
Whether or not the grandmother had given consent was a key element in establishing the potential false imprisonment allegations against the suspect.
Despite Det. Alvarez’s claim, the grandmother later testified that the detective never spoke to her about that issue, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Det. Alvarez later admitted that he didn’t ask the grandmother about consent at all, but that he had “tried to use a little common sense on this one,” according to court documents.
Burgess granted the motion to suppress on Nov. 1.
“This failure to candidly advise the judge of all the material facts deprive the judge of the opportunity to exercise meaningful supervision…this failure permeated and tainted the entire warrant application process…and requires that all of the evidence collected in the search of the Defendant’s home be suppressed.”
Burgess further noted that Rybicki’s alleged offenses were “morally unworthy of a windfall exoneration,” but that without legally-obtained evidence, he had no option but to dismiss the charges, WFTS reported.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said there was “simply no reason or excuse” for Det. Alvarez to have lied on the search warrant application, and that he would arrest him for perjury if he still worked for his department, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
“To me it’s very clear. He lied. He committed perjury,” Sheriff Gualtieri told WFTS. “It’s wrong. If he was here in Pinellas County today, I would arrest him and put him in jail, but he’s not. He doesn’t work here anymore, and hasn’t since 2017.”
"This was all on Detective Alvarez. It's not on anybody else," the sheriff told Spectrum News. "Nobody at the State Attorney's Office wrote this, nobody at the State Attorney's Office prepared it and nobody at the State Attorney's Office swore to it."
The now-former detective left the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) in May of 2017, and began working for the Ann Arbor Police Department (AAPD) in Michigan the following month, Sheriff Gualtieri told the Tampa Bay Times.
The sheriff said he notified the AAPD chief about the former deputy’s actions in the Rybicki case, and that the AAPD immediately placed Officer Alvarez on paid administrative leave while they conduct an internal investigation.
Although the case against Rybicki has been dismissed, Sheriff Gualtieri expressed concern that additional children could be victimized because he is not behind bars.
“The evidence was there regarding these inappropriate acts and this inappropriate conduct,” the sheriff told WFTS. “I just hope that this guy doesn’t ever victimize another child, and that we’re not standing here because he does this again.”
“Unfortunately, in order for there to be consequences, there’s going to have to be another victim,” he told the Tampa Bay Times.
But Rybicki’s defense attorney argued that justice has been served, and urged judges to be more critical of law enforcements’ claims in search warrant applications in the future, Spectrum News reported.
"Please be very mindful of what's happening here and asking the right questions of law enforcement to make sure that something like this does not happen again," Fleming suggested.
"Our home is our castle," he told Spectrum News. "We want certain protections for people just to be able to come into our house for any reason. That was not done the right way in this case."
"I think justice was served," he continued. "As I've said before, the fourth amendment is alive and well in Pinellas County.”