TAMPA — Hillsborough County has reached a tentative settlement with a convenience store fined well over $1 million for selling synthetic drugs, a move that should allow the county to continue using code enforcement in its battle against synthetic pot. Terms of the settlement have not yet been filed or made public.
Assistant County Attorney Stephen Todd filed the notice of settlement in the federal court case. He said the agreement does not involve waiving the fines but said he could not discuss the terms of the agreement until it is finalized and presented to the county commission, possibly next month.
“We’re in the very early stages of this process,” he said.
The county’s code enforcement board in January upheld a $1.2 million fine — the largest in county history — against the Citgo/Country Food Store in Seffner for selling synthetic drugs. Additional fines have made the total $1.25 million, said Luke Lirot, who represents the business owner along with two other stores that have been fined less than $5,000 each for similar offenses.
Lirot said his clients have vowed not to sell the contraband any longer.
“Primarily, the goal the county wanted was to remove the substances from public access, and we agreed to that,” Lirot said. “We agreed to accommodate those concerns. As we went though the process, the county embraced the gentle criticisms and suggestions we proposed and that made some room to negotiate.”
Though the fines would not be entirely waived, he said, “We’ve reached a monetary settlement — it’s not finalized — but it does come down from $1.25 million.
“We didn’t think that was fair,” he said. “We were concerned that the fine might be deemed a little out of line with the nature of the infraction.”
The county is considering Lirot’s suggestion that the fines mirror penalties levied for felony offenses, though the code violations are civil, not criminal. Fines for felony offenses range up to $15,000.
The settlement should go a long way in eliminating the sale of synthetic drugs around the county, Lirot said.
“The county’s goal was to get the attention of these business owners, and this has gotten their attention,” he said. “The county has been very successful.”
The case against the Citgo/Country Food Store was the most high-profile instance of the county’s decision to use code enforcement to crack down on the sale of synthetic drugs. Law enforcement still investigates complaints but has often been stymied because manufacturers would simply tinker with the ingredients in synthetic drugs, making prosecution difficult. So the county passed a code enforcement ordinance making it illegal to sell synthetic drugs over the counter.
The fine for the Citgo/Country Food Store on East Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was the total of $500 for each of 2,506 packets purchased by undercover code and law enforcement officers between March and July 2013. The code enforcement board at the time also denied a petition to stay additional fines of $1,000 a day while the case was appealed in court.
Store owner Tariq Hammad and the property owner, Clifford Gatewood, contended they did not know banned substances were being sold in the store. The business owner was not notified until August that the store was being fined for the display and sale of synthetic marijuana products, according to court documents.
Gatewood filed a lawsuit that convinced the county commission last month to exempt property owners from code enforcement fines imposed on businesses that lease space from them.
Code enforcement officials said the investigation began after tips came into the office about the banned substances being sold at the Citgo/Country Food Store. The tips prompted a letter from the county’s Consumer Protection Agency warning against the sales of substances labeled under names like Mr. Happi, Scooby Snax and Mind Trip. Officials said that even after the $1.2 million fine was imposed at a September code enforcement board hearing, undercover deputies continued to buy banned substances at the store.
Synthetic marijuana mimics the high obtained from THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. But the product can cause anxiety, nausea, vomiting, elevated blood pressure and hallucinations.
Though the county has taken shop owners to civil court to curb the sale of the substances, law enforcement officers continue to investigate criminal cases, including one that was made earlier this week at the Al Pacino Smoke Shop in Thonotosassa.
Manufacturers of the synthetic drugs often tweak the ingredients to avoid criminal prosecution, but in this case, the ingredients matched a compound that is illegal in Florida, so criminal charges were brought, said sheriff’s spokesman Larry McKinnon.