Jail time over citation for feeding birds in Clearwater raises questions

CLEARWATER — Stella Franzese ended up behind bars for six days because she failed to show up in court.

Her initial transgression: feeding the birds at a Clearwater Beach park.

Franzese's citation carried an $88 fine. But her stay in jail cost taxpayers more than $600, according to an estimate by the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office. And that figure doesn't include costs for time expended by the police, the State Attorney's Office, the judge or court staff.

In March, Franzese, 55, who is homeless, was cited for violating a city regulation that deals with the protection and preservation of wildlife. A warrant was issued when she failed to appear in court earlier this month.

Franzese's situation and another involving a homeless person have prompted officials to review the handling of cases in which people fail to show up for court in cases involving noncriminal ordinance violations.

Raine Johns, director of Baker Act cases and homeless outreach services at the Public Defender's Office, said she first became aware of jail penalties for violations such as this earlier this year. Another client was sentenced to 10 days in jail for a combination of charges that included noncriminal ordinance violations, failures to show up in court for those infractions and violations of a state law that federal judges in Florida had previously ruled unconstitutional. All of those charges had to do with soliciting money or allegedly obstructing traffic while doing so.

After learning of Franzese's case, Johns became alarmed.

"I told (Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger) we had to do something about this," Johns said.

Dillinger spoke with Judge Henry J. Andringa, administrative judge for county court, about warrants issued for failures to show up in court for noncriminal ordinance violations. Dillinger said the cases could be handled somewhat like civil traffic infractions.

Andringa said he's not sure whether such cases will be handled differently in the future, but officials are looking into it. There needs to be a way to get people to comply in such cases, he said.

"You have to have some way to enforce it," Andringa said.

Johns said she's not sure how common cases such as Franzese's are because her office doesn't represent people who are accused of noncriminal municipal code violations.

Ron Stuart, 6th Judicial Circuit spokesman, said it's not unusual for warrants to be issued when people fail to show up in court, even for seemingly benign infractions.

"Technically, any time they don't show up to court, there's a warrant issued," Stuart said.

There may be exceptions, he said, when a judge has additional information.

Andringa acknowledged that Franzese's case was unusual.

It's not clear how many people have been cited for a similar charge in Clearwater. City police spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts said the department's system does not allow searches by that specific ordinance number.

Franzese has been struggling with mental illness since she was about 20 years old, according to her mother, Nina Haggberg, who lives in Clearwater. Franzese has been on and off the streets for at least two decades, she said.

Franzese has been arrested at least 35 times since 1973. Since 2006, she has been arrested at least six times on numerous charges, including this one. Other charges included possession of a shopping cart and failure to appear on a sleeping or camping in public citation. She has also been arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, carrying a concealed/electric weapon and battery.

Here's how Franzese ended up in trouble this time, according to police records: On March 4 at about 3:45 p.m., Clearwater police found Franzese lying in the grass at Mandalay Park. Near her, an officer noticed a small ceramic bowl filled with water and some food residue. Franzese said she was feeding the birds. The officer told her she was not allowed to do that. She became defensive, said she was a lawyer and claimed she was being harassed. The officer offered to give her a verbal warning. Franzese insisted that he cite her and he did. Franzese was arrested more than a month later in St. Pete Beach after she failed to show up in court.

Five days later, Johns reviewed the file and told the judge that Franzese shouldn't be in jail. The judge agreed and issued an order for her to be released on her own recognizance.

Johns said Franzese shouldn't have ended up in jail in the first place.

"The fact this is even happening is beyond egregious," Johns said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

. Fast facts

What the law says

Clearwater Code of Ordinances Sec. 22.31. Protection and preservation of wildlife.

(3) No person shall feed any feral or wild animal or attempt to pet any wildlife on park property.

Jail time over citation for feeding birds in Clearwater raises questions 04/23/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 26, 2010 1:40pm]

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