The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office recently performed a sting against 118 people who performed unlicensed contracting work.
The handymen would unexpectedly be lured to one of five houses, where the undercover officers filmed them performing or agreeing to carry out prohibited tasks like painting or installing recess lighting.
These stings were conducted between March and December of 2019. The arrests were announced on February 4, 2020.
“These 118 con men and women were posing as contractors & preying on innocent homeowners in Hillsborough County, who were just looking to repair or improve their home,” said Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister at a press conference on February 4.
The Sheriff’s Office also disseminated a compilation video of several of the handymen arrested in the sting operation, including some who had prior criminal convictions, or who had previously been caught doing unlicensed contract work.
Only eight of the people arrested during the Operation House Hunters sting were repeat offenders, according to a report from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department. The other 110 were first-time offenders. The majority of them were charged for “unlawful acts in the capacity of a contractor,” a misdemeanor offense that could involve a $1,000 fine and a 12-month jail sentence. Repeat offenses can snowball into a felony charge.
Leslie Sammis, a criminal defense lawyer in Tampa, Florida who has represented clients caught in these sting operations, argued that these busts did not end up with law enforcement apprehending big criminals.
“The real con men that are trying to trick homeowners are usually too experienced to get caught up in one of these types of sting operations. So the stings tend to catch someone that crosses the line in an unsophisticated way,” Sammis told Britschgi in an email.
More often than not, she claimed, officers will originally hire a handyman on the pretext of doing work that doesn’t require a license. Then, the officer would ask the handyman to perform an activity that requires a license, for example, unhooking a toilet or laying tiles.
“When the handyman says no, then the undercover detective moves the conversation to something else and then comes back to the question later in a different way,” said Sammis. “By the time the handyman gets to the location, they want to make the homeowner happy and end up agreeing to perform work that they didn’t intend on doing when they first arrived. The undercover detective[s] are just creating a crime that probably wouldn’t occur otherwise.”
Occupational licensing serves to protect already established businesses and raise revenue for the state via licensing. It’s a barrier to entry that hurts the poor and benefits bigger businesses that can bear the costs of regulatory compliance and bureaucrats who craft these arbitrary regulations and rely on further government expansions to make a living.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has thankfully made occupational licensing reform a major policy item during his term in office. Such police actions show that he still has work to do in regard to occupational licensing reform. Economic activity that has no criminal intent or does not cause harm toward others should not be criminalized.
This kind of policing shifts resources away from more serious crimes such as rapes, burglaries, and murders — real crimes that demand the full attention of law enforcement.
Sammis concluded, “These sting operations rake in big money in fines and court costs. Catching real criminals actually committing a crime is much harder.”
Hopefully, Florida legislators get the memo and put a stop to these sting operations.