NEW PORT RICHEY — Stacks of soda on sale sit out front of the Racetrac gas station at Trouble Creek Road and U.S. 19. Traffic buzzes past as drivers fill their tanks and pop into the store for coffee, snacks and cigarettes.
About 8 o'clock one night last month, authorities say, a 21-year-old unemployed man named Roy Matthew Miller sold 10 oxycodone pills to an undercover sheriff's detective for $120 cash. The narcotic painkiller is illegal to possess without a prescription.
Miller, of New Port Richey, was charged with possession of a controlled substance and sale of a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a convenience store. Miller, already a felon with a previous prison stint, will almost certainly face more time in prison.
Such 1,000-foot barriers were written into state law beginning in the 1990s to give special protection from crime to spots like schools and churches. They also apply to public housing, recreation centers, assisted living facilities and, yes, your local 7-Eleven.
The special protection: more jail or prison time for offenders.
Sheriff's Office spokesman Kevin Doll said the 1,000-foot provision is a useful tool in fighting the drug trade. A handful of such arrests have surfaced lately in Pasco County.
"The intent, I think, of the Legislature is to allow law enforcement officers to hit these dealers harder from the areas where they're dealing which directly come into contact with the public," Doll said. "It's different if someone's dealing from their home or down a dirt road someplace.
"This is where the public could be affected by it."
He called it a quality of life issue.
"A lot of a community's business does happen at convenience stores. (And) a convenience store in a lot of areas is the only store," he said. "That's why a lot of these convenience stores become a hub of drug activity."
The enhanced penalties vary, depending on the substance being sold, the quantity and the offender's prior criminal history. In some cases it can mean mandatory prison time.
J. Larry Hart, a former prosecutor who now practices criminal defense, agrees that the rule gives law enforcement a "stronger hand" and said the societal benefits are indisputable.
"We want to minimize the risk for those activities," he said, like going to church or running to the store to buy milk.
But, he said, there can be a downside.
When officers set up stings at convenience stores or empty school parking lots, the "special protection" for those areas is largely eclipsed.
"It is an instance of introducing into these areas … the very activity that we're trying to protect them from," he said. "The irony cannot be lost."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245.