In May 2014, Deerfield Beach resident Louis Hilaire, 25, was contacted by his ex-girlfriend out of the blue.
"I've been looking for you," she allegedly said via Facebook message. She then called him on the phone, and the pair went out drinking the next night and, according to court documents, ended up having sex.
A few hours later, she revealed why she'd reached out to him: One of her friends, she said, worked as a housekeeper at the nearby Budgetel Inn in Pompano Beach, near the intersection of Atlantic Boulevard and the Coconut Creek Parkway. She went on: There was a safe in room 125 at the hotel, she said, which contained cash, jewelry, and a gun. And there was a housekeeper willing to give her and Hilaire a key to go steal the items inside, as long as the housekeeper got a cut of the loot. Hilaire, who had pleaded guilty in the past to charges of marijuana possession, attempted robbery, and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, initially declined. But, according to court records, his ex pleaded with him to "please help her out," and eventually, he agreed.
Turns out, the woman was acting as a confidential informant for the Broward Sheriff's Office. Kevin Kulik, who represents Hilaire, says his client's case had been part of a repeated, unconstitutional sting operation by BSO's VIPER Unit. Kulik alleges the VIPER Unit is using "amorous" women to illegally entrap young, black offenders into committing crimes.
At 1:30 p.m. today, the county will hold a hearing to determine whether BSO's actions constituted entrapment. Update: Today's hearing has been postponed.
On May 22, 2014, Hilaire, along with a second man named Joseph Malcolm, met his ex-girlfriend and the housekeeper, and drove to the Inn. The housekeeper then told Hilaire how to crack the safe (which contained a gun) and handed him a key to the hotel room. Hilaire stole the goods — and then cops converged. The housekeeper, it turns out, was a cop, and the entire ordeal was a sting. Hilaire was arrested on charges of burglary, grand theft, grand theft of a firearm, and possession of a weapon by a convicted felon.
BSO's VIPER Unit (VIPER stands for "Violent Intervention Proactive Enforcement Response") combined two pre-existing units: the Regional Street Crimes Unit and Gun Squad. Sheriff Scott Israel, who is running for reelection this year, has said the VIPER unit uses "intelligence-led policing" and "helps us zero in on not only illegal weapons, but also on criminals with a history of the violent use of weapons...With better intelligence on offenders and potential offenses, we have been able to target the six percent of criminals that commit approximately 65 percent of all violent crime." He says the unit has been responsible for "striking at the heart of violent criminals" in Broward County.
Kulik maintains that the the VIPER Unit is simply entrapping people like his client, a young, black, repeat offender trying to keep his nose clean. On February 4, 2016, Kulik filed a motion to dismiss the latest charges against his client, claiming that BSO had clearly entrapped Hilaire.
The informant "told Mr. Hilaire all the necessary details concerning how to commit the crime," Kulik wrote. She and BSO "provided the means to commit the crime: They gave Mr. Hilaire the key to the hotel room; drove Mr. Hilaire to the hotel; and explained where the items were located in the hotel room.
"BSO manufactured the entire crime," he wrote. He was especially concerned about the safe with the gun inside: According to the suit, the informant told Hilaire "don't forget the safe," and the undercover cop posing as the "housekeeper" also allegedly called and asked, "Don't you have the safe?" When Hilaire said no, she told him to go back inside and get it.
"Clearly BSO was most interested in the firearm allegedly inside the safe, because the firearm trumps up the charges against Mr. Hilaire," he wrote. "Without the firearm inside the safe, Mr. Hilaire could not be charged with armed burglary, possession of a firearm by a felon, or grand theft of a firearm."
In a follow-up motion to dismiss, filed May 11, Kulik claimed his client had been arrested due to "overtly racist targeting by [the] Broward County Sheriff's Office." He provided a list of the 13 defendants who had been arrested in similar stings.
According to a deposition given by BSO Detective Neil Munson, the VIPER Unit has used the "hotel sting" on 18 defendants. Kulik deduced the identities of 13. Eleven of them were black men, and two were black women.
"How do you target people and get 100 percent African Americans?" Kulik said to New Times. "How is that possible?"
Moreover, Kulik told New Times, he's certain the entire sting was illegal, since BSO owned all the items that his client "stole."
"The lady works for BSO, since any [confidential informant] is an agent of the police," Kulik says. "You can’t consent to somebody stealing to your stuff. If you say, 'Here’s the key to my office,' you can’t charge them with theft."
When asked about the case, Broward Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes says that the department ought to be "monitoring, not manufacturing crimes," adding that since elite police units are expensive to operate, they can often try to make themselves look useful by trying to trump up arrests.
"You have to monitor them very closely," he said. "They can often find themselves getting into questionable conduct if the quality of arrests or types of arrests they’re making are not monitored. It's important to have these specialized units, but they can go rogue on you."