Broward sheriff's Lt. Jeff Mellies appears to have abused his authority when he dug up protected driver's license information on several swimmers who perform in the mermaid show at the Wreck Bar on Fort Lauderdale Beach.
But did he commit a crime?
That question will be addressed by state prosecutors once the Broward Sheriff's Office completes an internal affairs investigation into Mellies' actions, according to an email the agency sent to an attorney representing the mermaids in their federal civil suit, which names Mellies and Broward Sheriff Greg Tony as defendants.
"The case is still open and active," BSO Capt. Barry Lindquist wrote in the April 18 email. "Additionally, the case will be submitted to the State Attorney's Office for criminal review."
In their federal suit, mermaid performers Whitney Fair and Janelle Smiley allege that Mellies violated their privacy when he accessed their personal information on the Driver and Vehicle Information Database (DAVID), a confidential law enforcement resource that includes photographs, addresses, social security numbers, and other sensitive information.
State records show that Mellies used his BSO computer to run DAVID checks on Fair and Smiley in 2018, at a time when his wife, Mia, was performing with the pair in the Wreck Bar's mermaid show, which is billed as the only underwater burlesque show in America.
When Mellies' wife, AKA "Mermaid Mia," was fired from the show that same year, the couple aimed their ire at Fair and, to a lesser degree, Smiley. Fair alleges the Mellieses waged a harassment campaign against her that lasted more than three years, during which time they moved into a home directly next door to hers.
"Aquaticat Fight: Wreck Bar Mermaid Sues Broward Sheriff's Office for Invasion of Privacy," published on April 20, security cameras captured video of Jeff Mellies on Fair's property, including footage in which he can be seen scaling a ladder and disabling a camera mounted on the side of her house.
Fair filed a trespass complaint against Mellies with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, which declined to make an arrest. A BSO internal investigation into the matter was concluded with no finding of wrongdoing against Mellies.
Meanwhile, Mia Mellies regularly attacked Fair on social media and posted a series of TikTok videos maligning her. In videos and police reports, she and her husband claimed Fair was violating their privacy with the security camera. In one video, Mia, a self-described first-degree Celtic witch, said she was concerned the camera might capture her and her husband as they conducted nude pagan rituals in their backyard.
The Mellieses also claimed on social media that Fair was a drug dealer who'd done hard prison time, apparently referencing an arrest involving a small amount of cannabis more than two decades ago, when Fair was 18. That case was expunged from the public record, leading Fair and her attorney, Gary Kollin, to suspect Jeff Mellies improperly accessed her criminal background records. To date, that suspicion has not been confirmed, but state records show that Mellies did run a criminal background search on Smiley, Fair's coplaintiff.
The lawsuit also alleges that Jeff Mellies ran DAVID checks on mermaid show founder Marina Anderson, as well as on the boyfriend of another Wreck Bar swimmer. Fair says she personally witnessed Mia Mellies exhibit law enforcement information about the boyfriend as well as the driver's license data of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz.
Prior to publication of our story in April, BSO spokesman Cary Codd responded by email to New Times request for comment, writing, "The Broward Sheriff's Office makes it a practice not to comment on pending litigation." Messages left with Jeff and Mia Mellies and Jeff Mellies' attorney, Tamatha Alvarez, were not returned. There was no response to a detailed follow-up voicemail left with Alvarez this week.
Stories of police in Florida abusing the DAVID system are common. In a bid to increase the penalties for offending cops and other officials, the state legislature last year passed a bill to raise the civil fine for misusing the state's driver database from $500 to $2,000 per instance.
The legislature cited numerous cases to justify the increase, including a Pasco sheriff's detective who looked up an activist who'd requested his internal affairs file, a Port Richey police dispatcher who admitted running a check on a teenage girl he'd spoken to on a call, a Lakeland police officer who checked women he encountered on duty, and another police dispatcher who used DAVID to look up addresses for Christmas cards.
One of the most notorious cases that was cited involved a Pembroke Pines police officer, Melodie Carpio, who was found in 2017 to have misused the database hundreds of times for personal reasons, including 101 searches of her boyfriend's ex-wife's husband, who reported receiving numerous harassing anonymous communications that included details of his personal life.
Like many offending officers, Carpio was able to keep her job, facing only a civil judgment of $15,000, as well as docked pay of less than $20,000.
There are laws on the books, however, that make it a criminal offense for officials to improperly access information from DAVID.
Last month Robert Herzog, a (now former) Coral Springs High School assistant principal, was charged with criminal use of personal identification information, a felony, after police say he "duped" a school resource deputy into running a license-plate check on his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend before allegedly harassing the boyfriend in texts and social media posts.
The 38-year-old Herzog "used his position as a public servant in a position of authority to obtain confidential and personal identifying information...with intent to obtain benefit for himself and to cause harm to another," police wrote.
Attorney Kollin urges the Broward Sheriff's Office to charge Mellies with the same crime.
"It's time to up the penalty," he tells New Times. "The concept is deterrence."
Kollin has also urged BSO to charge Mellies under a Florida law that makes it a felony to access a computer system "with knowledge that such access is unauthorized or the manner of use exceeds authorization."
Whitney Fair worries that people are focusing on her case as a "mermaid feud problem," rather than the communitywide issue that it represents.
"Any cop that sees a good-looking girl, a good-looking guy, has a beef with someone, can just go and get this information?" she asks rhetorically. "That's just ridiculous and dangerous."
Fair says that until police are held criminally liable for abusing confidential databases the problem won't go away.
"It's just justice, it's just what's right," she says. "I've had to go through four years of torture, ridicule, lies from these people. I don't want anyone else to go through this. If for once this really gets handled the way it should, then maybe police officers would stop abusing it."
Bob Norman serves as editor-in-chief for FLCGA News, a publication focusing on investigative reporting produced by the nonprofit Florida Center for Government Accountability. This story was reported in partnership with the FLCGA.