Last summer, Rosa Cancel spent a day at the beach with her family, scooping up mollusks in knee-deep water.
Her outing didn't end well. The single mother of three got a citation for illegally harvesting bay scallops. But the drama didn't end there. Delays, confusion and bad information landed her in jail.
"One day at the beach turned out to be a living nightmare," said Cancel, 47, of Oldsmar.
About two weeks ago, she was arrested in the Walmart parking lot on Tampa Road after she picked up her 7-year-old daughter from Forest Lakes Elementary School. There was a warrant out for her arrest because she failed to show up for the hearing where she was supposed to enter a plea in the scallop case.
Cancel did go to court in August, when she was initially supposed to, she said. But the court had no record of her citation on that day.
Her predicament traces back to July 23, when Cancel was cited for harvesting the scallops in Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs. So was her brother-in-law Bruce Budney, who allegedly had five scallops.
It's illegal to gather bay scallops, even during scallop season, south of the Pasco-Hernando county line. Regulations are aimed at avoiding the depletion of the scallops, said Amanda Nalley, spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Cancel said she didn't know it was against the law.
"I've never been to that beach, and I didn't know you couldn't pick up scallops," Cancel said.
On that day last July, she was holding nets for her mother, who likes to fish for crabs, she said. Two wildlife officers in beach attire were conducting a plainclothes detail, targeting the illegal harvesting of bay scallops in the park. They had watched Cancel and another woman for about an hour, according to a report from the wildlife commission.
One officer said he saw Cancel dip a net in the water and empty its contents into a bag.
At first, when the officer asked if Cancel had caught anything, she said no, the report said. After the officer found 22 bay scallops in her bucket and told her it was illegal to gather them there, she told him she collected them because she thought they were "cute."
Cancel's and Budney's citations said they were supposed to show up for court on Aug. 9.
Both went to the Criminal Justice Center on 49th Street that day, they said, but neither of them was on the court docket.
"I did my part," Cancel said. "After that, I kept calling and they said, 'We don't have anything for you.' "
Budney, who had a copy of his citation, was able to enter a plea that day anyway. Cancel, who had lost her citation, could not.
Turns out, the court didn't receive their citations until Aug. 10, when they arrived by U.S. mail, according to Connie Daniels, director of court and operational services.
Around Aug. 26, a notice to appear in court on Sept. 13 was sent to Cancel at the address on her citation. But she never got it.
"That notice was returned to us as undeliverable," Daniels said.
Cancel said she had moved more than two years ago to another apartment in the same complex. Cancel said she's not sure how the court got her old address. She recalls giving the officer her correct one. Besides, she said, the letter carrier who delivers her mail knows where she lives.
Gary Morse, another spokesman for the wildlife commission, said officers routinely confirm address information before putting it in a report. Plus, he said, Cancel signed the citation that listed the wrong address.
A warrant for Cancel's arrest was issued after she failed to show up to court on Sept. 13.
Around seven months later, on April 19, Cancel was picking up her daughter from school. A deputy ran her tag and discovered a warrant for her arrest. He followed her to the Walmart parking lot, where he told her about the warrant and said he'd have to arrest her but didn't want to do it in front of her daughter, Cancel said. She called her sister, who picked up her daughter and her car.
After that, Cancel said, "They put a strap around my waist and handcuffed me and threw me in the paddy wagon."
She was booked around 4:15 p.m. that day and released about 5:45, after her sister posted $813 bail, court records show.
Cancel blames authorities for her predicament.
"It was their mistake, a huge mistake," Cancel said. "It led to a warrant, a bond and my daughter having emotional problems."
Budney, her brother-in-law, calls the whole thing a "ridiculous debacle."
"How much does this woman have to pay for something she didn't do maliciously?" he asked.
Judgment was withheld in Budney's case, but he still ended up paying $500 in fines and court costs.
Cancel has another court date May 15.
"I'm so nervous," Cancel said. "I just want everything to be over and done with on the 15th."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155. Go to tampabay.com/letters to write a letter to the editor.