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New $500 penalty targets drivers accused of buying drugs or picking up prostitutes in Tampa

TAMPA — The cost of getting arrested for buying drugs or picking up a prostitute on Tampa streets is about to go up $500.

City Council members voted 6-1 Thursday to add the penalty for drivers whose cars are impounded after a drug or prostitution arrest.

The city already tows those vehicles, but it costs only about $150 to get each one out of the impound lot. The new $500 penalty is designed to reduce the demand for illegal drugs and sex.

"We need to give our officers in blue the necessary tools to help eradicate and take some of these things out of our community," said Essie Sims Jr., chairman of the East Tampa Partnership, an association of 15 neighborhood groups.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the ordinance will send a clear message to inner-city neighborhoods "crying out for help."

Those arrested will have to go home without their vehicles and face their families and consequences of being arrested, Buckhorn said in a statement after the vote.

"This is one of the best tools we have to help combat prostitution," he said. "That's why cities across the country have adopted similar measures."

The sole no vote came from Mary Mulhern, who said she's concerned that the penalty undercuts the due process of law.

"You're arrested, you are judged and penalized at the same time by the Police Department and your hearing would be scheduled later," she said.

Mulhern also worried that the ordinance gives police the incentive to generate revenue by making more arrests.

Under the new ordinance, vehicle owners who didn't realize a non-owner was going to use the car to pick up a prostitute or buy drugs could get it back without having to pay the $500. But after that driver's first arrest, owners couldn't claim they didn't know the driver might use the car for those crimes.

At the urging of then-council member Buckhorn, Tampa passed a similar law in 1997. But the city repealed the law following years of legal challenges to similar ordinances around the state.

The new law has been re-written to address issues raised in those cases, officials say.

"It's the right ordinance at the right time," Buckhorn said before the vote. "It was very effective when we deployed it before. The recidivism rate was negligible, and it works."

Sidewalk advances

In other business, the council unanimously approved:

• The donation of a strip of privately owned land along N 43rd Street so the city can build a sidewalk near where a young pregnant mom was killed a month ago while pushing a stroller on the street.

The 207-foot-long, 10-foot-wide strip is coming from the Rosalia Urso Revocable Family Trust. Now city officials say the construction of a sidewalk on the west side of 43rd Street could begin in a couple of weeks. The project is expected to take less than two weeks to complete.

On Nov. 16, Monica Alvarez, 27, died after being struck from behind by a car as she and a friend pushed their baby girls in strollers down 43rd Street. Alvarez was six months pregnant, and her son, Angel, was delivered by emergency Caesarean section but lived only an hour.

• A $30,000 settlement with the widow of Roobik "Tony" Vartanian, 35, who was working as a security manager for Club Prana when he was shot by Tampa police Officer Richard Harrell on Sept. 6, 2008.

Vartanian was pursuing two patrons outside the Ybor City club when Harrell and another plainclothes officer came upon him. Harrell said he twice told Vartanian to drop the handgun he was carrying, but Vartanian instead turned toward him and swung his arm around to point the gun directly at him.

Jennifer Vartanian had contended in a federal lawsuit that the officers didn't identify themselves before Harrell shot her husband.

Harrell was cleared by Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober and internal affairs investigators. The city denies any liability in the death.

New $500 penalty targets drivers accused of buying drugs or picking up prostitutes in Tampa 12/15/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 15, 2011 11:45pm]
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