LAND O'LAKES — Stanley Panopoulos is spending 15 days in jail for not paying a court fine in 1985, a fine he says he never knew he had to pay or else he would have paid it back then.
"This is ridiculous," Panopoulos, 50, said from inside the Pasco County jail Wednesday afternoon. This was his fourth day, with 11 ahead of him. He is a car salesman who wears suits and lives in a house in Trinity with a fireplace and a pool. Now he's assigned to a metal bunk in a room full of inmates.
"It's a nightmare," said Panopoulos, unshaven, who said he has not slept for days. "I just want to get out of here."
Back in 1985, Panopoulos pleaded guilty to charges of DUI, reckless driving and driving with an expired tag. He was 25 then and working as a bartender. He enjoyed his youth.
"It was the '80s," he said.
He spent four weekends in jail and logged 50 hours of community service. His driver's license was revoked for one year. He attended DUI school.
And he was required to pay court fines and costs: $349.50 for the DUI; $229.50 for the reckless driving and $50 for the expired tag.
Panopoulos said he thought he did everything he was supposed to. But, according to court records, a warrant was issued in 1986 after he failed to appear in court to explain why he hadn't paid the latter two fines.
Panopoulos, who is now married with two sons, said he had no hint that he was a man on the lam.
His license was reinstated.
He was arrested in Clearwater in 1988 on charges of fraud and reckless driving, which appear to have been dismissed. Kevin Doll, spokesman for the Pasco Sheriff's Office, said his agency found teletype instructions that were sent to Clearwater to hold Panopoulos on the warrant.
"Looks like he bonded out" when he should have been held, Doll said.
After that, the warrant seemed to disappear for two decades.
Panopoulos was arrested in Dunedin in 1989 on a charge of assault. The warrant should have popped up then.
Panopoulos was pulled over for speeding three times — twice in Pinellas, in 2001 and 2003, and in Pasco in 2006, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
He's passed background checks for jobs. He renewed his driver's license last year.
"It was an active warrant," Doll said, "it just wasn't showing up in the system."
In 2009, the warrant was reverified during an internal audit. Doll said the agency gets about 2,500 warrants a month and, at one time, had 40,000 pending.
"We have thousands of warrants and periodically they go through those warrants to find out if maybe if someone died or maybe if the State Attorney's Office wants to get rid of the warrant — to expunge it," Doll said.
Panopoulos' warrant was checked, Doll said.
"That was one of the ones determined still good," Doll said.
So the warrant was in the system, active, waiting for Panopoulos to get pulled over again.
On Saturday night after work at Sun Toyota in New Port Richey, Panopoulos met a friend at Ozona Blue in Palm Harbor. Sitting at a red light on his way home at about 10 p.m., a Pinellas Sheriff's deputy ran his license plate and saw the warrant issued in 1986 for his arrest.
"Are you kidding me?" Panopoulos said.
The deputy wasn't.
Panopoulos was put in a "paddy wagon," he said, shackled with drunks and one guy whose face was covered in blood. He was transferred Tuesday to the Land O'Lakes jail, he said. A young kid was pepper sprayed Wednesday morning, he said, and the spray got in Panopoulos' eyes, which were swollen shut for two hours.
His wife tried to pay the fine, but was told it was too late.
The 25-year-old warrant ordered the arrest and 15-day confinement of Panopoulos. At $60 a day to house and feed inmates, his incarceration costs taxpayers $900.
He and his wife keep contacting lawyers, who tell them nothing can be done.
"I just want to speak to a judge. I want my rights to tell him how I feel," Panopoulos said.
Doll said that won't happen with this type of warrant. "This is an arrest sentence order," he said. "There is no first appearance."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.