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Lawn watering violation gets Pinellas woman arrested

Joan Popo, 54, was arrested Monday for failure to appear in court on a lawn watering violation.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Joan Popo, 54, was arrested Monday for failure to appear in court on a lawn watering violation.

OLDSMAR — Joan Popo said she was mortified to be fingerprinted and photographed at the Pinellas County Jail on Monday.

Her crime? Watering her lawn on the wrong day.

Technically, Popo got into trouble after she failed to show up for a court hearing on the issue. But that doesn't make the married mother of two feel any better about what happened.

"I thought it was unnecessary to have a warrant out for me," said Joan Popo, 54. "I felt like a criminal. It was really humiliating."

Popo, who's never been arrested, said she's still unclear how a simple problem with her sprinkler timer landed her at the jail. "I kind of felt like I was a victim," Popo said.

Popo is one of 196 people cited by Pinellas County Utilities in December for watering her lawn on the wrong day.

Pinellas County Utilities and other local water officials used to hand out warnings for first offenses. But stricter guidelines imposed in November by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, also known as Swiftmud, ended those warnings in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

Preliminary data shows the new guidelines may be working — at least in Pinellas and Hillsborough.

The number of watering violations observed by Pinellas water officials has dropped 33 percent. From December 2007 to February 2008, enforcement officers observed 747 violations. From December 2008 to February 2009, that number went down to 499, according to Terrie Lee Grace, enforcement supervisor for Pinellas County Utilities.

"I'm hoping the public is responding to the drought situation we're having," Grace said.

And that was exactly Swiftmud's intent, said spokeswoman Robyn Felix.

"We know that enforcement works," Felix said. "We know that residents will be more likely to follow the restrictions if they know their local government is enforcing them."

Popo isn't the first to have a warrant issued for not coming to court for a watering violation, Grace said, though she did not have exact figures available. In Pinellas, a warrant is issued for anyone who doesn't show for a court hearing, regardless of the offense, said 6th Judicial Circuit spokesman Ron Stuart.

Popo's story began when a Pinellas County Utilities officer left a violation notice on her door on Dec. 10. The sprinkler likely went off on the wrong day because a power surge had thrown the system's timer off kilter, said Joan Popo's husband, Eden, 54.

On Jan. 20, a Pinellas County Utilities official came to the Popos' home with a citation for the Dec. 10 violation. Popo said she didn't see the line at the bottom of the ticket that required a Feb. 20 court appearance if she didn't pay the $188 ticket within 30 days.

Fast forward to Feb. 27, when Popo got a notice in the mail saying there was a warrant out for her arrest. On Monday, the Popos went to the courthouse to contest the fine. They were shocked when they were told Popo would have to be booked and pay a $213 bail or spend the night in jail, the couple said.

After paying the $213, Popo was led to a processing room where a deputy fingerprinted her and took her mug shot. The photo ended up on the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Web site.

While unfortunate, Popo's situation could have been avoided, court officials said. Popo could have opted to pay the $188 fine when she went to the courthouse.

"If they came in and just wanted to pay it ... we would have gone ahead and taken payment and recalled the warrant and then that's the end of it," said Myriam Irizarry, general counsel for the Pinellas clerk of the court. "If they want to contest it, because it's a warrant on a failure to appear, all they can do is post bond at the jail."

Popo said that distinction wasn't explained to her.

Grace, the enforcement supervisor, said she encourages customers to "read your documentation carefully."

Popo and her husband, who was laid off from a managerial position in September, are both unemployed. A week before the warrant, they were revising Joan Popo's resume so she could start looking for a job.

Now she's worried the arrest could affect her family's financial outlook. "If I have to go apply for a job, will this show up?"

Fortunately, most employment applications only ask for disclosure of felonies. The failure to appear is a misdemeanor.

Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4162.

FYI

Check Swiftmud's current watering restrictions for your area

Lawn watering violation gets Pinellas woman arrested 03/05/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 7, 2009 9:12am]
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