State Attorney's Office activates Hurricane Response Team following Irma
Two weeks after Hurricane Irma ravaged Southwest Florida, the State Attorney's Office 20th Judicial Circuit announced Monday it has activated its Hurricane Response Team to target storm-related crimes.
A team of prosecutors and staff will focus on cases involving contractors working without a license during a state of emergency, a felony crime, and looting and burglarizing during and after the storm, Chief Assistant State Attorney Amira Fox said.
The team will also be standing by to assist with any cases of price gouging, which are usually investigated by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office and call for civil penalties and fines, Fox said.
"The reason it's so important is because we've really suffered devastation to our community and our region," she said of the response team. "And we want to make sure that if people are trying to recover that they're not taking advantage of, making matters worse and making their lives more difficult."
Although all of the State Attorney's Office's 120 prosecutors were educated on the storm-related crimes and asked to be part of the team, Fox said, the agency has an economic crime unit, which includes four prosecutors, that will handle the majority of cases.
Fox said her office, which covers Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties, has seen arrests related to burglaries during a state of emergency.
Sentences for those crimes are enhanced, she said. For instance, while a burglary of a structure is typically a third-degree felony, during a state of emergency that offense is elevated to a second-degree felony, Fox said.
"So it carries more prison time, bigger fines," she said. "So we've seen some of those already coming in throughout our circuit."
Cases of contracting without a license usually take a few months before they reach prosecutors, Fox said.
"Because normally what happens is a person will contract with somebody to do a repair, for instance a roof repair, the repair doesn't get done properly, and when they try to go after the person, we find out they're unlicensed," she said.
Residents should always check before hiring a contractor to make sure they're licensed in Florida, Fox said. She recommended using the state's online business entity index at sunbiz.org.
Anyone falling victim to storm-related crimes should still contact local law enforcement first, said Samantha Syoen, a spokeswoman for the State Attorney's Office.
"That's the normal course of action," she said.
Fox said the response team was first created after Hurricane Charley in 2004 when officials realized that "this region was ripe for that kind of abuse and fraud."
Even weeks after that storm, out-of-state contractors who weren't licensed to work in Florida still continued to head to Southwest Florida "looking to make quick money" and then disappeared, Fox said.
"After Hurricane Charley ... we saw the effects of the contracting without a license," she said. "People who'd lost their home and contracted with fly-by-night builders who ended up with nothing and were victimized even further than they'd already been."