By Bill Cotterell
BRISTOL, Florida (Reuters) - A Florida sheriff was acquitted on Thursday of charges that he committed misconduct and falsified public records when he freed a jailed man who carried a loaded gun without a permit.
Suspended Liberty County Sheriff Nick Finch, 51, had testified that he released Floyd Parrish from jail because he had a constitutional duty to uphold the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Conservative organizations and activists opposed to gun control rallied to the sheriff's defense after Governor Rick Scott suspended him last summer. Scott reinstated him shortly after the jury delivered its verdict.
A now-former deputy had arrested Parrish during a traffic stop in March on charges of carrying a loaded weapon without permit.
Parrish, 58, testified during the four-day trial that he kept a pistol in his pocket to summon help if he passed out at his rural home because of various health conditions.
At the county jail, Finch advised him to get a permit soon, and let him go.
Prosecutors did not contend that Finch lacked authority to release Parrish or to overrule the deputy's decision to arrest him. Assistant State Attorney Jack Campbell argued that the sheriff, who was elected last year in a bitterly fought campaign, was repaying Parrish and his brothers for their political support.
He said Finch was "using the Constitution to cover up his criminality" and that he broke the law by removing Parrish's booking records and arrest report from the jail.
Defense attorney Jimmy Judkins told jurors that Finch was just being neighborly and abiding by the social customs of the rural Florida Panhandle.
"There ain't many of y'all, but you have your own common code or beliefs," Judkins said. "It's a way of life over here for people to own guns ... There's a distinct possibility that, every now and then, one of y'all is going to make a mistake and he doesn't want to create a convicted felon out of an incident that could be misunderstood."
The defense lawyer said Finch had no corrupt intent in freeing Parrish. He said no one knew who "whited out" a jail log entry or removed the arrest affidavit but that computer records and property documents still existed to show Parrish had been in custody for about three hours.
Prosecutors belatedly worked out a deal to defer prosecution of Parrish on the gun charge, in exchange for his paying $200 in costs and doing 50 hours of community service.
The deputy who made the arrest testified that when he learned of Parish's release, he went to the jail and retrieved his own copy of the arrest papers.
After lining up another job, he reported the incident to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which investigated and charged Finch in July with official misconduct and illegally altering public records.
(Reporting by Bill Cotterell; Editing by Jane Sutton, Tim Dobbyn and James Dalgleish)