ST. PETERSBURG — The honorable Henry Andringa should have been at home presiding over the University of Florida and Ole Miss game. Instead he was in a building at Fifth Avenue N and 31st Street, making deals with people who had warrants for their arrest as part of Operation Safe Surrender.
A mock courtroom had been assembled Saturday morning — the attorneys sat at folding tables, and the bailiff used Dunkin' Donut napkins to wipe the black ink from people's thumbs as they left. The judge leaned back in his chair as the next defendant stood.
"We have another parking ticket," said Sara Mieczkowski, a public defender.
Andringa asked if the defendant, a middle aged woman, was going to pay her ticket today.
"It's paid," she replied.
"Why didn't you pay it before for crying out loud?" Andringa asked.
The woman paused and looked about.
"I'm terribly forgetful and irresponsible sometimes," she said.
Andringa lost it laughing. A judge expects honesty, but rarely gets so much.
"We've all been there," Mieczkowski said, smiling.
Weeks before, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office sent out 12,358 postcards to people with nonviolent warrants. The agency wanted to make a deal, the card read. If you surrender at this "one-day event," you would not be arrested and the Pinellas County Attorney's Office will offer "favorable considerations."
The operation went from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. At 8:30 there were 49 people lined around the corner (65 called to prearrange their visit). By day's end, 114 people turned themselves in, stood before Andringa, and paid their court fees and restitution. The operation collected $6,864.50 in all.
Andringa jokingly told one woman who paid her fine, "We're going to buy a new city hall with that money."
One man flew in from New York and paid a $73 fine, although Andringa presumed he had other reasons to be in town. Another man, born in 1924, came on a 30-year-old warrant for failure to pay his $100 attorney fees.
"They don't even have that (law) anymore," said Lt. Dwayne Somers, who oversaw the operation.
Perhaps the most entertaining was William Rivera, a 41-year-old handyman from Tampa.
Andringa asked the prosecutor who was next, and the attorney rattled off numbers of an ordinance violation. Andringa looked puzzled.
"Drumming after dark," said Rivera, originally from Puerto Rico.
"Well, we gotta nip that in the bud," the judge said.
Rivera said he hadn't paid the $93 fine out of principle, but the prospect of a cell wore down his resolve. At the end of the day Andringa was pleased with the turnout, and the Gators won.
Weston Phippen can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8321.