Cooper City Unlicensed Contractor Sting
Dressed in casual attire and looking like new homebuyers, Daniel Belyeu and Debra Wallace showed the two men around their opulent, unoccupied home and asked whether they could help spruce it up.
When the men agreed to perform masonry and carpeting work, the net came down: Six uniformed deputies and officers stormed into the living room, forced the workers to the ground and arrested them.
Belyeu and Wallace were undercover Broward sheriff's deputies. The workers were arrested Thursday on the charge of unlicensed contracting.
"How am I supposed to provide for my family with all the restrictions?" asked one cuffed worker, John Simms, 38, a father of four from West Palm Beach. "You tell that to my kids when I don't have the money to come home."
Simms was among dozens of suspects lured to the Cooper Cityhome and taken into custody Wednesday and Thursday during a multiagency operation targeting unlicensed contractors. Of the more than 30 suspects arrested over two days, 14 were released and given notices to appear in court. Additionally, dozens of criminal traffic citations and civil citations were issued.
"We've brought these individuals here because they have a history of noncompliance or citation, in many cases an extensive history," said Belyeu, a detective with the sheriff's economic crimes unit. "That's why we've isolated them as a problem to the consumer as well as the industry."
Curbing illegal home improvements, officials say, has been an elusive goal in South Florida amid the downturn in the economy: Unemployed workers contract without a license as an easy way to make money. And some homeowners turn a blind eye to the unlicensed work for bargain prices.
But authorities say they've made some progress during the past three years, organizing 12 undercover operations to nab workers with histories of unlicensed contracting. First-time offenders face a first-degree misdemeanor. Second violations are a third-degree felony.
Homeowners who don't scrutinize whether someone is licensed may inadvertently invite a criminal inside their home, officials say.
"The latest trend that we've noticed is that about 60 percent of the respondents to our operations have extensive criminal histories that include felonies," Belyeu said. "Everything from sexual abuse to aggravated battery. We've even had a murderer show up at one of our things."
During the operation this week, more than 40 workers who authorities say had histories of contracting without licenses showed up one by one to a foreclosed Cooper City home. The home was equipped with surveillance cameras to record negotiations.
The workers were invited to the home by undercover deputies posing as homeowners in need of home repairs.
As each worker approached, officers shouted, "We got action!" and, "A car is coming!"
Some officers and deputies positioned themselves in a room at the rear of the house as they waited for undercover deputies in the living room to reach work agreements with the suspects.
Several suspects looked stunned and upset after their arrests. Some complained that deputies were disrespectful when they barged in and forced them to the ground to cuff them.
Deputies must take such action, a sheriff's spokeswoman said, because it's unclear at the time of the arrest whether someone is armed.
"We have had people come in with weapons before," said the spokeswoman, Veda Coleman-Wright. "So we have to make sure we take them into custody safely and quickly."
One man had two baggies of cocaine in his pocket and was also held on drug possession charges. Thirteen vehicles were towed.
After his arrest, Simms was taken to the back of the Cooper City home and placed on a couch. He questioned why he was arrested and told police that he was a father trying to earn a living for his children. He said he has a company and the necessary licenses.
Rainelle Morgan, an investigator with Broward's Permitting, Licensing and Consumer Protection Division, disagreed. She told Simms that he offered to provide finished carpentry work without having a certificate of competency for such work or a contractor's license.
"You're a responsible person," Morgan told him. "You should know what you're supposed to do."
Helping the Broward Sheriff's Office perform the undercover sting were Broward County's permitting and licensing officials, the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation and the state Division of Insurance Fraud.
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