STUART —– Before former Martin County sheriff's Deputy Steven O'Leary Thursday was ordered to prison for 13 years, he blamed his addiction to drugs for why he falsely arrested dozens of people on drug charges during 2018 traffic stops.
During a half-day hearing that featured emotional testimony from people he falsely jailed on trumped up felony charges, O’Leary, 31, told Circuit Judge Sherwood Bauer he takes full responsibility for his illegal actions.
“Sir, I was using any upper I could get my hands on while submitting only God knows what into evidence to be approved by a supervisor before I would turn it in,” O’Leary said while seated at a defense table wearing orange jail garb, leg cuffs and waste chains.
“I had a need and my only goal each shift was to satisfy an addiction,” he said. “I'm not trying to avoid blame; I was wrong. I was completely out of control and I made my choices.”
Steven O'Leary case: Former deputy faces years in prison after plea deal
Before imposing his sentence, Bauer ruled O’Leary was guilty of 50 felonies, including multiple counts of official misconduct, falsifying arrest affidavits and statements, tampering with evidence, false imprisonment, petty theft and battery.
O'Leary had faced up to 17 years in prison after pleading no contest in September to dozens of felony charges as part of a negotiated plea deal with state prosecutors.
He was given credit for 885 days he’s been at the Martin County Jail, meaning he must serve about 10 ½ years in prison.
Fake drug arrests
O'Leary worked for the Martin County Sheriff's Office 11 months before he was fired in January 2019 after the State Attorney's Office noticed discrepancies in some of his drug arrests.
During his time as a sheriff’s deputy, O'Leary arrested 26 people accused of having drugs on them who either did not, or, who did not have the actual amount or type of drugs O'Leary said they did, according to his arrest warrant.
At the time, Martin County Sheriff William Snyder said his agency and state prosecutors each completed separate investigations into all of O'Leary's drug arrests made during his employment probation period.
In total, he had 89 drug-related arrests, sheriff's officials said. Ten people O’Leary arrested on drug-related charges were released from jail and their charges dropped in January 2019.
O’Leary on Friday said he “went to work impaired” and lied to everyone around him.
He said his drug use began when he was prescribed Adderall for anxiety and attention deficit disorder. He went on to use cocaine, he said, and “any type of amphetamine” he could get.
“Where would you get that?” his lawyer Adrienne Bucchi asked.
“Remove it from traffic stops,” O’Leary admitted.
He said he began abusing drugs after he finished his initial training at the Sheriff’s Office.
“I was a hypocrite who put people in jail for doing the exact same thing that I was doing,” O’Leary said. “I understand the need for punishment, and I understand being held to a higher standard due to my former occupation.”
Months after O'Leary was fired, lab results from the Indian River Crime Laboratory showed substances that were the basis of 26 of his narcotics arrests were not drugs, but instead were substances such as crushed headache medicine, laundry detergent, mints and other legal items.
O’Leary was arrested in Tallahassee in July 2019 and brought to the Martin County Jail where he remained on a $1 million bond.
Snyder in court insisted O’Leary was “100% an outlier within the Martin County Sheriff’s Office.”
“I have never in my career seen anything to rival what Mr. O’Leary did,” he said.
Snyder noted that in O’Leary’s two previous jobs in law enforcement, he’d undergone extensive background checks, polygraph tests and drug testing, which he underwent again before he was hired as a deputy in Martin County.
“He passed all of our tests. There was not one thing in his background that gave us reason to pause,” Snyder said. “He evidenced no sign of instability, untrustworthiness or showed any tendency to be a liar.”
Assistant State Attorney Nita Denton, in urging for the maximum sentence of 17 years, rejected O’Leary’s statement that he didn’t know what he was doing when he was tampering and faking substances he turned in as drug evidence.
She presented as evidence a religious statue found in the trunk of O’Leary’s car that lab tests showed he’d used to create a powdered material he later passed off as illegal drugs found during traffic stops.
“That takes a lot of thought and that's what he did,” Denton insisted. “So, to say ‘I didn't know what I was doing’ is not real.”
She argued that O’Leary’ crimes “affected every law enforcement officer in this country."
“He has created distrust in law enforcement. And once you lose that trust, it's very hard to get back,” she said. “And for these victims out here, it probably never will.”
Brevard County resident Samuel Palmieri, 31, who was one of five victims to testify, said his life was ruined when O’Leary arrested him while driving a Mercedes Benz through Martin County in September 2018.
Palmieri, who had no criminal record, said O’Leary claimed he pulled him over because the car’s window tinting was too dark, then asked to search his car.
“I told him not a problem, I have nothing to hide,” he said.
As O’Leary searched, Palmieri said other deputies on the scene “belittled” him before he was told he was under arrest.
“I was thrown in handcuffs, didn't know what was going on … I asked Mr. O’ Leary, what are you arresting me for?” Palmieri recalled. “He goes, ‘don't worry about it, just a little bit of cocaine. You go in here, you'll bond out. You'll do a little time, have to do some drug court and it'll be all right.’
“That was the first time in my life that I actually felt like a piece of meat. I felt like that my life didn't matter anymore.”
He spent $6,000 hiring an attorney and found his mugshot on the Internet.
“The whole ordeal just, it really … destroyed me,” he said.
Palmieri was diagnosed with PTSD and an anxiety disorder and still receives therapy, he said.
James Sutton, 45, of Stuart, testified that in November 2018 he woke up in the Martin County Jail facing three felony charges and a five-year prison term. He still can’t feel his right hand after the force O’Leary used during his arrest, he said.
Sutton said his false arrest harmed his professional and personal relationships.
“Everybody makes mistakes and this man didn't make mistakes. This man was intentionally and maliciously trying to destroy the lives of many people,” he said. “This man is a cruel bully.”
After court, Snyder said after O’Leary’s firing, his agency changed how deputies secure evidence collected during traffic stops. Before, deputies could seal and impound evidence without a supervisor seeing it first.
Now, a supervisor must review all evidence before it’s sealed, Snyder said. And deputies use “high-tech equipment that can read the chemical composition of suspected narcotics.”
“And more than ever before,” he added, “we're not making arrests at the scene for suspect drugs. Rather, we're going to the crime lab first and then we go back with a warrant.”
Melissa E. Holsman is the legal affairs reporter for TCPalm and Treasure Coast Newspapers, and is writer and co-host of Uncertain Terms, a true crime podcast. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Former Martin County deputy lands in state prison for faking drug busts