In October 2017, Derek Benefield was driving in the Florida Panhandle’s Jackson County when he was pulled over for allegedly swerving into the opposite lane. Once at the car, sheriff’s deputy Zachary Wester claimed to smell marijuana and conducted a search of the vehicle, which, he reported, turned up methamphetamine and marijuana. Despite insisting the drugs weren’t his, Benefield, who was already on probation, was arrested, charged $1,100 in fines and court fees, and sentenced to one year in county jail.
Benefield was seven months into his sentence when, in September 2018, the state attorney’s office dropped his case and those of 118 others. Largely thanks to the diligence of one assistant state attorney, Wester was suspected of routinely planting drugs during traffic stops over his two years in the department.
Last month, Benefield and eight others filed a federal lawsuit accusing Wester and two other deputies of planting drugs and making illegal arrests, and the Jackson County sheriff’s office of negligence. The suit accuses all the defendants of violating the individuals’ civil and constitutional rights through illegal search, seizure, detention, prosecution, and incarceration. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Marie Mattox, told The Appeal the suit represents “only the tip of the iceberg,” and she plans to add another 18 to 20 plaintiffs. At least 37 people have filed lawsuits against Wester at the state level. The sheriff’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit.
A criminal investigation into Wester’s behavior was opened last August by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, but no charges have been filed. Mattox said that, for the first time, three of her clients were subpoenaed for interviews in connection with that investigation in early June.
It didn’t take Christina Pumphrey long to become familiar with Zachary Wester’s name. When she was hired as an assistant state attorney at the 14th Judicial Circuit in May 2018, her duties included reviewing evidence before filing charges in several categories of arrests, including drug possession. “This is an exaggeration, but it felt like his name was on half the cases,” Pumphrey told The Appeal. “It was seriously disproportionate.”
As she watched the body camera footage from Wester’s arrests, Pumphrey grew concerned: His vehicle searches were not always conducted legally, and his written affidavits didn’t always match what she saw in the videos. People’s reactions to their arrests also seemed unusual. “It wasn’t, ‘OK, crap, I’m busted,’” she said. “It was, ‘What do you mean?’” Pumphrey began looking more closely at Wester’s arrests.
When the internal affairs division of the sheriff’s office heard she was looking into Wester’s arrests and asked for more information, she shared several body camera videos and explained what to look for. Within weeks, the sheriff’s office pulled Wester off the road and asked the law enforcement department to investigate.
More than 100 people who Wester had arrested during his two years on the force were still out on bond or — if their arrest had violated probation — behind bars. Yet the state attorney’s office did not immediately move to drop the cases. At the time, Pumphrey said, she was “getting an explicit instruction to not dismiss the cases.”
“I know these people are sitting in jail. I know that the particular charges they’re in jail on they’re either innocent of, based on the information I see, or there’s no way I could take this in front of a jury. But I’m being told, ‘Just let them sit in jail.’”
Pumphrey continued pulling Wester’s earlier arrest videos for the sheriff’s office, including ones from closed cases that had been assigned to other attorneys in her office.
In August, she flagged a February 2018 video of Wester pulling over Teresa Odom for a faulty brake light, and allegedly finding a baggie of methamphetamine in her truck. Looking closely, Pumphrey had noticed something hidden in Wester’s hand as he initiated the search.
The Odom video could not be ignored. Within weeks of Pumphrey’s discovery, the sheriff’s office fired Wester, and late September, the state attorney’s office dropped 119 cases that relied on his arrests or testimony.
Internally, however, Pumphrey said the chief assistant state attorney, Larry Basford, chastised her for sharing the videos with the sheriff’s office. “He starts yelling over the phone. What was I doing looking through all the videos? Why in the world did I find the Teresa Odom video? Why was I looking for it? And just having an absolute fit.” Basford did not respond to comment on Pumphrey’s characterization of this conversation. Pumphrey turned in her resignation the following day. She filed a whistleblower complaint, but later dropped it because she said she didn’t want it to affect her ability to represent her clients at her new state job in public defense at the Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel for the First DCA Region of Florida.
The law enforcement department investigation remains open, according to a spokesperson. “Whether or not criminal charges will ever be filed, I don’t know,” said Pumphrey. “I’m not holding my breath.”
The nine plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, and dozens of others, continue to live with the lingering effects of their arrests, and in some cases, incarceration. “One of the things that, routinely, every one of them has asked me is, ‘What is going to happen to Zach Wester out of all of this?’” said Mattox of her clients. “They’re not calling me, asking me, ‘How much money am I going to get?’ The question is, ‘What are they going to do to Zach Wester because of what he did to us?’ … They want to make sure that he’s not going to be a law enforcement officer so that he can’t do this to somebody else.”
The recently filed federal lawsuit seeks damages in excess of $75,000, as well as prospective injunctive relief, and alleges that Benefield and the others have suffered “grave mental anguish, pain and suffering, loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life, embarrassment, humiliation, loss of reputation, lost employment opportunities, lost wages, and the loss of other emoluments.”
“People still had consequences. It wasn’t like this was just all erased,” Pumphrey said. Dropped charges still remain on a person’s criminal record. And “even though the charges got dropped, there were people sitting in jail for six months on no bond because of this case. Or you’ve got people who have to spend money on supervision fees; they have to spend money paying for their own urine analysis test; they’ve done community service hours; they paid cost of bond — like $1,500. … You’re not getting back six months of your life. Or you’re not getting back the job that you lost because you sat in jail for a week before your girlfriend could get the bond money.”
For instance, Benefield’s co-plaintiff Darrell Watkins was arrested and charged with a felony after Wester claimed to find 26.4 grams of methamphetamine in his car in March 2018. He was released after paying a $5,100 bond but was arrested and searched by another officer named in the lawsuit, Trevor Lee (with Wester as backup), just four days later — which again allegedly turned up meth. Watkins lost six days of work at a tax preparation service during the height of tax season, and his employment was phased out for the year. His name and charges were on the local news, “creating tremendous obstacles for his employment prospects,” according to the suit.
Many of those Wester arrested had prior drug charges, which amplified the consequences of an arrest and likely hurt their chances of being believed over an officer. “It’s a small town, it’s a small community,” Pumphrey said. When she started the job, “I had some names I knew that I was seeing coming up in my caseload. And a lot of them, you see the name, and you know the reputation, and you think, I know he’s guilty.”
She said a culture of wanting to rack up conviction statistics — which are sent out to voters on postcards — incentivizes prosecutors to seek misdemeanor plea deals, instead of dismissing cases when the evidence doesn’t add up.
“The state attorney’s office was just as bad and just as guilty as Zach Wester when we found this out and were not dropping these cases immediately, in my mind,” Pumphrey said. “When it was ignorance it was one thing, but as soon as we know there are innocent people sitting in jail and we don’t drop the charges, we’re as guilty as he is.”