So far prosecutors have identified 10 cases that involved misconduct in which incarcerated people’s sentences will need to be vacated, and 15 pending cases that have or will be dismissed.
PANAMA CITY — Prosecutors are reviewing more than 250 criminal cases involving Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Zachary Wester after video emerged in the past month of him planting drugs in a vehicle during a traffic stop.
Wester, 26, of Marianna, was fired Sept. 10 after more than two years as a patrol deputy with JCSO. His career now is under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) after evidence arose that he had planted drugs during a February traffic stop in Marianna. As that investigation proceeds, the 14th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office is reviewing more than 250 cases to determine Wester’s role and whether any misconduct took place.
State Attorney Glenn Hess said his office so far has identified 263 cases in which Wester played a role, either as the lead officer, backup or an essential witness. Prosecutors said they have identified 10 cases that involved misconduct in which incarcerated people’s sentences will need to be vacated, and 15 pending cases that have or will be dismissed. When FDLE concludes its investigation at an undetermined date, authorities will decide whether to pursue criminal charges against Wester.
“It’s speculation,” Hess said. “But if you’re accusing someone of planting drugs, they must have possessed drugs. And I don’t know of any provision in the law that authorizes a deputy to possess drugs outside of evidence they seize in the pursuit of an investigation.”
Hess said FDLE came to his office days ago to brief him and senior prosecutors about an investigation into Wester. During that briefing, Hess said he viewed a video and photographs from a traffic stop that resulted in the arrest of a woman on narcotics possession charges.
“The things I saw in the video caused me concern about his professionalism,” Hess said. “As a result of that, I made the decision not to accept any cases in which he was participating. We also undertook a review of all cases made in the past two years by that officer and have been taking steps to correct a situation that is unacceptable.”
The video released Thursday by the SAO dates back to a traffic stop on Feb. 5 in Marianna, in which Teresa Odom was arrested after Wester said he found a baggie of methamphetamine in her vehicle. The entire traffic stop was recorded on Wester’s body camera and later aroused concern by the prosecution and defense attorney. They took the information to Jackson County Sheriff Lou Roberts, who began an internal investigation and called in FDLE to conduct an independent investigation.
Roberts declined to comment on the case, as the FDLE investigation is ongoing. However, Wester has been fired after two years with JCSO. Before then, he worked as a Liberty County Sheriff’s Office deputy from August 2015 until he joined JCSO.
On Tuesday, prosecutors asked Circuit Judge Christopher Patterson in open court to vacate the sentence of Odom, the woman whose drug possession arrest was caught on body camera video. Patterson agreed.
According to court records, Odom was on pretrial release from an earlier stolen property charge when Wester arrested her on Feb. 15. The new arrest prompted a judge to revoke her bail, which kept her behind bars for more than a month until the resolution of the drug case. She pleaded no contest to the drug charges brought by Wester on March 6 and was sentenced to four years of probation.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many other defendants might be in jail or prison as a result of alleged misconduct by Wester.
Hess said he has an attorney working full time to review cases brought by Wester and expects more charges to be dismissed because of misconduct.
“Cases that are good cases and are viable, that do not involve any questionable conduct, go forward in the court system,” he said. “Those that are questionable, the benefit of the doubt goes to the defendant.”
Hess said the scope of misconduct involved in this case is unprecedented in the circuit and possibly across Florida. A motive behind the evidence tampering has yet to be established and there did not appear to be any common themes among the cases. Hess said the activity undermines the trust instilled by the public in law enforcement and needed to be corrected as soon as possible.
“We must see that the system maintains it’s integrity and that people have faith in the judicial system,” he added. “When we see something that is wrong we have to correct it, and this something we are trying to correct.”