A former Pasco County Sheriff’s deputy was arrested for the second time in less than a month, this time for allegedly tampering with evidence.

“This isn’t one of the happiest days of our careers that we have to do these things, but we have to do these things because this is what law enforcement is,” Sheriff Chris Nocco said while announcing the arrest.

Joseph Mercado was arrested and fired last month for misdemeanor battery following an off-duty sexual incident. Nocco said he’d been a deputy for about three years.

Mercado’s arrest Thursday stems from an incident that happened Dec. 8. According to the arrest report, Mercado arrested a man on Catalona Avenue after finding what appeared to be marijuana in a plastic bottle he saw him drop.

The report states Mercado found a piece of methamphetamine and an unused syringe when he searched the man, and body cam footage seems to show him putting those items into the man’s backpack. Surveillance footage from a neighbor’s house appears to show Mercado throwing the backpack into that neighbor’s yard.

“When we opened up the bag, there was a few…needles, there was drug residue. My old man, he’s on probation. That could’ve put him right back in prison,” said Kelly Pearson, the homeowner’s fiancée.

"Systemic failure"

Pearson said they reported what happened and showed deputies the video. Nocco said they told their superiors.

“Nothing happened,” said Nocco. “Nothing happened – no call to major crimes, no call to internal affairs.”

The sheriff said it was news of Mercado’s first arrest that caused people to come forward from within the organization about concerns that command staff at District 1, where Mercado was stationed, failed to investigate this incident.

“There was a systemic failure in that district to do the right things, and because of that, more things are coming out about Mercado,” said Nocco.

Nocco said there’s been no clear answer from Mercado about why he threw the bag over the fence, and no answers from leadership about why it was not investigated. Mercado’s District 1 captain has resigned.

“There’s zero tolerance, and it’s not only just him. It’s those that were in the chain of command,” Nocco said.

The sheriff said the state attorney’s office has also been notified about Mercado’s latest arrest.

Maintaining public trust

“Their job is to work with us to prosecute bad people,” Nocco said. “We want to make sure they’re well aware that this person has done this crime and any cases with their name should have a question mark.”

The investigation is ongoing, and Nocco said more people within his office will be held accountable if needed. He said it was important for him to be open with the public about this arrest to help maintain their trust in his office – something that Pearson said has been shaken.

“I’m not saying it about all of them, because some of these deputies out here, they’re nice. They do their job, they do their stuff, they go home. But you got some out here that want to act like they’re cream of the crop, but they’re not,” she said.

Nocco said his office is investigating one additional complaint against Mercado and encouraged any other possible victims to come forward.