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A police officer in Florida who traded sex with a teenager for a free pass on a potential drunken driving charge has inadvertently helped make it easier to prosecute public officials for taking bribes. The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously decided to ease the standard for juries to convict public officials for unlawful enrichment. It said that circumstantial evidence, rather than proof of explicit agreement is sufficient to prove that a public official illegally profited from his or her office. “We hold that circumstantial evidence is sufficient to prove the offense, and that proof of a specific agreement is not required,” Justice Raoul G. Cantero III wrote for the court. Experts say the ruling could shift prosecutions for public corruption from the federal courts, where they have historically been tried, to Florida’s state courts. In the fall of 2001, a jury found Fernando Castillo guilty of felony unlawful compensation and official misconduct. He asked Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Scott J. Silverman to set aside the guilty verdict on the compensation charge. Silverman refused. In December 2002, a three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal unanimously overturned Castillo’s conviction for unlawful compensation. Judge Juan Ramirez Jr., writing for the 3rd District, said Castillo’s conviction could not stand because no direct evidence existed that the police officer and the 19-year-old woman had an explicit verbal agreement to trade sex for her release. But the Supreme Court said Thursday that all that mattered was Castillo’s intent. “The district court’s requirement of a ‘spoken understanding’ imposes too high a burden on the state and would prohibit prosecution of all but the most blatant violations,” Cantero wrote in State v. Castillo. Consuelo Maingot, an assistant attorney general in Fort Lauderdale who argued the case for the state, said the ruling “defines even more critically and clearly that a public official has a higher standard to rise to.” Public corruption cases traditionally have been prosecuted in the federal court system because it has greater investigative and prosecutorial resources, witnesses are not subject to depositions and U.S. Attorneys are better shielded from local political pressures than elected county prosecutors. The Supreme Court ruling could change that, said former U.S. Attorney Kendall B. Coffey, who oversaw the corruption trials of Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez. He said the decision signals that the Supreme Court is taking a savvier view about public corruption than Congress and the federal courts have taken. Under the federal Hobbes Act, prosecutors must prove an explicit quid pro quo. “Almost nobody discusses bribery schemes in detail,” said Coffey, a partner at Coffey & Wright in Miami who does some defense work. “It’s a wink and a nod and it’s not spoken, because it doesn’t always have to be. “I think the proving that someone has sold their office to the highest bidder is going to become easier for state attorneys than U.S. Attorneys because unspoken agreements are now fair game for state attorneys,” he added. ‘BODY OF A STRIPPER’ On March 9, 2000, at about 4 a.m., Castillo, 42, observed the 19-year-old woman — referred to as A.S. in court documents — driving at 55 mph in a 40 mph speed zone. The Miami-Dade County police officer used his lights to pull her over and when she stopped, he used his megaphone to order her out of the car. She stumbled as she got out of her car because she had been drinking heavily that night, according to trial testimony. As he touched her arm and flirted, according to trial testimony, Castillo remarked that she must have attended a “great party.” Then he smelled alcohol on her breath. Castillo told her to get back into her car and follow him to the parking lot of an empty warehouse. According to the testimony, Castillo said very little to A.S. during their encounter in the parking lot. He did tell her she had the body of a stripper. And while he didn’t explicitly offer to trade sex for letting her go, he did tell her after the two had sex that “she was lucky he did not give her a ticket,” according to the Supreme Court opinion. The justices held that an explicit verbal deal wasn’t necessary to convict Castillo. “Public corruption has become sophisticated enough at least to expect that public officials soliciting or accepting unlawful compensation ordinarily will not be so audacious as to explicitly verbalize their intent,” Justice Cantero wrote for the court. Cantero wrote that Castillo’s “words and actions demonstrated his understanding that A.S. was violating the law when he stopped her, and his releasing her without legal consequence after having sex with her, demonstrates his corrupt intent in soliciting an unlawful quid pro quo.” In addition, the fact that Castillo did not record his encounter with A.S. in his logbook proved that he knew his actions were wrong, Cantero wrote. Castillo had maintained at trial that A.S. flagged him down as he passed her in his patrol car and that he stopped to talk with her. He also said nothing sexual happened until after his shift “and that at that time they engaged in masturbatory sex.” He testified that he didn’t tell the officers investigating A.S.’s claims that he engaged in a sexual act with her because they did not ask. A.S. complained to the Miami-Dade Police Department that Castillo had raped her. Investigators looked into her claims and arrested him in May 2000, a few months after the incident. But prosecutors did not charge him with sexual battery largely because A.S. admitted to drinking heavily and smoking marijuana. At the time, they called her memory unreliable. After his arrest on unlawful compensation charges, Castillo, an 11-year veteran, was suspended by the Miami-Dade County Police Department, then was fired after his conviction. Castillo was sentenced to five years in prison. He’s been out on bond while awaiting the outcome of his appeals. MEETING OF THE MINDS Not only did the Supreme Court reject the requirement of a spoken agreement for unlawful compensation, it also held that the 4th District’s standard for proving such compensation also was too demanding. In its ruling in State v. Gerren in 1992, the 4th District said an unlawful compensation charge could be proven by evidence that a “meeting of the minds” existed. That conflicted with the 3rd District’s 2002 ruling in Castillo, which is why the Supreme Court heard the Castillo case. But the high court said even that the “meeting of the minds” standard in Gerren was too strict, quashing that part of the decision. A former federal prosecutor, who defended a contractor accused of paying kickbacks to win favorable contracts at Miami International Airport, said Thursday’s Supreme Court decision is going to make his job of defending accused public officials more difficult. “The bottom line is the court has recognized that it is the very rare situation where the government is blessed with explicit evidence,” said Allan Sullivan, a former chief prosecutor in the criminal division of the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office.

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