The rural Florida sheriff whose arrest and trial on misconduct charges became a cause celebre among the “constitutionalists” of the antigovernment Patriot movement this summer was acquitted by a jury yesterday.
Nick Finch, the Liberty County sheriff who was arrested and suspended in June and accused of tampering with the arrest record of a man in custody on a weapon-concealment charge, was found not guilty by a six-person jury in Bristol.
Gov. Rick Scott, who had signed the arrest warrant for Finch and named his interim replacement, immediately announced that Finch would be returned to office. “Sheriff Nick Finch will be reinstated immediately,” Scott announced. “I would like to thank the members of the jury in Liberty County for their service in this trial. I would also like to thank Interim Sheriff Buddy Money for his service to the state of Florida."
Finch was arrested after an incident in March in which one of his deputies arrested a man for carrying a concealed weapon during a traffic pullover. After the man’s mug shot was taken, Finch arrived at the jail with one of the man’s relatives, told his deputies to stop the procedures, released the suspect, and then allegedly walked away with the records that had already been generated. He told investigators he let the man go because he was protecting his Second Amendment rights, but he was charged with official misconduct for allegedly destroying the records.
The case attracted the interest of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, the organization run by longtime Patriot movement figure Richard Mack, who made Finch’s arrest a fundraising issue. Mack organized a legal-defense fund for the sheriff and warned his followers: “If Sheriff Finch is found guilty in this case, the most unjustified and frivolous trial in history, then we are all in trouble and could be suspects in any incident!”
Similarly, the conspiracy-minded Oath Keepers adopted Finch’s cause and organized fundraisers for his legal defense as well. The John Birch Society’s newsmagazine warned readers that “Freedom of speech, federalism, the right to keep and bear arms, and the right of the people to govern themselves through free elections are under assault in Florida.”
Much of the trial in Bristol centered around whether Finch had actually broken the law by whiting out the suspect’s name from the booking records. Finch claimed that the arrest records state officials alleged he walked away with never existed – and no one was able to prove otherwise.
Finch, meanwhile, acknowledged that he was practicing a kind of nullification of state law when he ordered the man’s release. He told the jury that he did not believe in enforcing the state’s concealment statutes, because he believed that Second Amendment rights trumped those laws.
The state prosecutor, Jack Campbell, questioned Finch on that point: “Don’t you agree that the Second Amendment doesn't give you the power to pick and choose which laws you're going to enforce and which laws you're going to not enforce?”
Finch answered: “The Second Amendment is very specific to keeping and bearing arms, Mr. Campbell. You’re talking about many laws. What I believe is the Second Amendment requires me to make a decision based on that Second Amendment as to whether I’m going to go forward with the state charges. Yes, I think the Constitution has to mean something at some point, Mr. Campbell.”
There was no immediate response from Mack or his organization. A spokesman for an Oath Keepers unit in Florida posted on the organization’s blog: “This is a great day for Liberty and Freedom. This is a perfect example for the rest of the Sheriff’s [sic] in the state of Florida and in the United States that the Constitution still has authority in this country not the feds or any other state agency that thinks they can take our Sheriffs [sic] authority away.”