By Bill Cotterell
BRISTOL, Florida (Reuters) - A Florida sheriff accused of illegally releasing a concealed-weapon suspect from jail acted out of a constitutional duty to uphold the Second Amendment right to bear arms, the police officer's attorney said on Tuesday at his trial.
Suspended Liberty County Sheriff Nick Finch allegedly let Floyd Parrish walk free from jail after a now former deputy arrested him for being in possession of a loaded .357 Magnum during a routine pat-down after a traffic stop in March.
Parrish testified he kept a pistol in his pocket to summon help if he passed out at his rural home because of various health conditions.
Parrish did not have a state permit to carry a concealed weapon and said Finch advised him at the county jail to get one soon, before letting him go.
Finch, elected in a close race last November in the rural county of less than 10,000 residents west of Tallahassee, has drawn ardent support from gun-rights activists.
The Florida panhandle sheriff was suspended by state Governor Rick Scott and pleaded not guilty to charges of official misconduct and falsification of public records.
Prosecutors said Finch had no authority to thwart prosecution of Parrish and allegedly erase records on his arrest.
Assistant State Attorney Jack Campbell told jurors the case has nothing to do with gun rights. He said the courts and law enforcement have to maintain accurate records so people know how well they are being protected.
"The issue is whether he is allowed to cover up or alter paperwork that tells the truth," said Campbell. "When he did that, he broke the law," he added.
Defense lawyer James Judkins of Tallahassee told the six jurors there was no "corrupt intent" in deleting booking records or written reports of Parrish's arrest. He emphasized that no one knows who "whited out" Parrish's name in the jail's booking log or what happened to an original file containing the arrest affidavit written by former Deputy James Hoagland.
Hoagland testified that, after he learned of Parrish's release about three hours after his arrest, he fetched a copy of the paperwork he had filed. He subsequently notified the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which investigated the incident.
Judkins said "police officers have a lot of discretion" in arrests. He said Finch, as sheriff, had authority to overrule Hoagland's decision to arrest Parrish.
"Everybody he talked to about why he was releasing Floyd Parrish, he told them, 'I'm releasing him because I believe in the Second Amendment," Judkins said.
(Editing by David Adams and Andrew Hay)