A former Florida cop has been arrested for planting drugs on unsuspecting drivers at traffic stops and then arresting them for made-up drug charges.
Police arrested former Jackson County deputy Zachary Wester in Crawfordville, a small town about 20 miles south of Tallahassee, on Wednesday. According to the arrest warrant, Wester routinely pulled motorists over for minor traffic violations, including claims that he smelled marijuana in their vehicles. The former cop then planted drugs in these vehicles and arrested the drivers or passengers on fabricated charges.
Police also accused Wester of failing to use his body camera in accordance with department policy, either leaving it turned off during the search or conveniently turning it on just after the drugs were “found.”
In one case, a man who was arrested for these fake charges lost custody of his daughter. In October of 2017, Wester allegedly planted methamphetamine on Benjamin Bowling, then arrested him and charged him with possession. Florida's child welfare agency had just awarded Bowling custody of his daughter, but this custody was revoked following the arrest, even though the innocent man passed a drug test.
Last August, police became suspicious about Wester's shady behavior and began an investigation. During the initial investigation, cops discovered 42 pieces of drug paraphernalia, ten bags of meth, and five bags of weed concealed in his car. Wester was fired one month later, but police continued the investigation, which eventually led to this week's arrest.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) charged the 26-year-old ex-cop with no less than 52 crimes, including racketeering, official misconduct, false imprisonment, fabricating evidence, possession of a controlled substance, perjury, and possession of drug paraphernalia, among many other crimes.
"There is no question that Wester's crimes were deliberate and that his actions put innocent people in jail," FDLE assistant special agent Chris Williams said, the Associated Press reports.
State Attorney Glenn Hess said that 119 cases that Wester was involved with had been dropped, and ten people have been released from prison. Three federal lawsuits have been filed against Wester, representing eleven individuals who all claim that the criminal cop planted pot, meth, pills, or paraphernalia on them during minor traffic stops.
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In the most recent of these suits, filed in May, Lora Penn alleges that Wester placed meth and a hypodermic needle in her purse during a traffic stop last June. Penn spent 12 days in jail before "her mother posted bond, exhausting her meager financial resources,” the lawsuit claims, according to CNN. “Penn's mother was thereafter unable to afford medical care and died due to lack of such care."
“This is something we’re not proud of,”Jackson County Sheriff Lou Roberts, who will be retiring next year, told the Tallahassee Democrat. “No agency wants to go through this kind of situation and face the embarrassment of the public. This is a very serious matter. We’re supposed to set higher standards, and the allegations that were made in this case will be tried.”
Wester is currently being held in the Wakulla County Jail without bail, but the case is far from over. “A significant investigation has been and is being conducted,” Williams told the Democrat. “FDLE has assigned a team of 10 special agents and two crime analysts who have logged over 1,400 hours on this case already. And it’s still ongoing today.”