FTC Raids Small Business and then Obscures Participation in the Raid

Update: On Thursday, March 29, 2018, after clarifying that there was no legal impediment to its production, CoA Institute received from the FMPD the unredacted body cam footage showing the raid on Vylah Tec’s offices.

On May 3, 2017, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) raided a small family-run tech support company, Vylah Tec, LLC (“V-Tec”), on suspicion of “deceptive” sales practices. The hours-long raid was initiated as part of a politically-hyped campaign known as Operation Tech Trap headed by the FTC in conjunction with the Florida Attorney General’s office. The FTC’s sting-like raid, assisted by local police, included hands-in-the air orders, temporary confiscation of employee cell phones, and police-escorted bathroom breaks.

On January 4, 2018, Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”), under Florida’s “Sunshine Law,” requested from the Fort Myers Police Department access to the body camera recordings taken by officers participating in the raid at V-Tec’s headquarters. In the request, CoA Institute specifically  stated that any denial of access to the requested records should be accompanied by an identification of the statutory exemption relied upon.

On March 15, 2018, two body cam recordings were produced to CoA Institute. Despite the multi-hour duration of the raid, the recordings were brief: ten minutes and eighteen minutes. The recordings showed Fort Myers police officers entering V-Tec’s offices, ordering V-Tec employees to put their hands in the air, and shepherding the employees into a small office vestibule where the employees were told they were being held until they were interviewed by unidentified people who had not yet arrived.

Curiously, although the police officers and the employees were clearly visible on the recording, several minutes into the recording, when other people entered the scene, the view immediately became obscured. Even more curiously, at times only a portion of the view is obscured so that the image of the employees is still clear, but people on the other side of the room cannot be seen – such as in the image below.

CoA Institute reached out the Fort Myers Police Department, seeking an explanation of what appeared to be redacted footage. In response, the FMPD confirmed that the footage had been redacted because they could not release the “agency” portion of the video. The Florida Sunshine law is very broad and does not include an exception to its broad disclosure requirements for images of agency personnel operating in their official capacity. It thus appears that the FMPD was instructed to deny access to body cam footage that shows the participation of those entities in the raid of V-Tec’s offices.

On March 16, 2018, CoA Institute requested that the FMPD “state in writing and with particularity the reasons for the conclusion that the record is exempt or confidential’ as required by Fla. Stat. § 119.07(1)(f)” because CoA Institute believes that the FMPD’s refusal to release an unredacted version of the footage to be improper.

Cynthia Crawford is senior counsel at Cause of Action Institute