Thursday, April 26, 2018
Opinion

Sheriff makes a splash with manatee case

This was rather bumfuzzling. Had Wally Ballew joined the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office as the special agent in charge of making Barney Fife look like Eliot Ness?

At the risk of dating some of us, hapless radio reporter Wally Ballew was the creation of the old comedy team of Bob and Ray. In one sketch, Ballew is intently engaged in a befuddled, eye-glazing man-on-the-street interview with a cranberry farmer in the middle of Times Square while oblivious to the sounds of gunfire, sirens, screaming people and screeching tires in the background.

And now it appears Ballew has become the sheriff's office Marshal Matt Dillon of manatees, tracking down aquatic scofflaws like Ana Gloria Garcia Gutierrez. She was hauled off to the hoosegow because she experienced a complete brain infarction in September and mistook a sea cow for a Busch Gardens thrill ride.

Gutierrez, 53, was captured in a photograph climbing onto the back of a manatee near the Gulf Pier in Fort De Soto Park.

The image set off a firestorm of protest from animal lovers everywhere and caught the attention of law enforcement. Treating a manatee as if it was Secretariat is not only not smart;, it violates the Manatee Sanctuary Act.

But did this literal crime wave really rise to the level that it required sheriff's office gumshoes to arrive a few days ago at the Tyrone Square Sears to arrest and haul her off to the klink, where Gutierrez was booked on a misdemeanor warrant for second-degree manatee slip and slide?

It wasn't as if Gutierrez was on the run. Days after the photos of her doing a very bad Esther Williams impersonation had been plastered everywhere, she came forward and admitted she was the manatee jockey in question and claimed she wasn't aware hitching a ride on the critter was against the law.

She could have kept quiet and hoped no one would recognize her from the grainy photos taken of her on the beach. But she didn't. After doing something not very bright, Gutierrez did the right thing.

And for that, she was treated by the gendarmes as the Ma Barker of manatees.

Was this really necessary? Was her crime so egregious that it required deputies showing up at her maintenance job at Sears with an arrest warrant?

Hadn't Gutierrez already been subjected to plenty of public ridicule and scorn for her misdeed?

Does anyone honestly believe if someone had simply notified Gutierrez and told her she was being charged with violating the Manatee Sanctuary Act, she wouldn't have voluntarily showed up at the jail to be processed?

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Thursday that had Gutierrez's bond been set at $1,000 or less, that is exactly what would have happened.

Instead, the $1,500 bond triggered the computer generated warrant for her arrest.

Does anyone think Gutierrez would have gone on the lam, rather than face the consequences of her actions, especially since she had already admitted to authorities she was the one they wanted?

It's not as if the sheriff's office doesn't have other things to do in the crime-fighting business, like going after drug dealers, thieves and rapists.

For one momentary mistake, Gutierrez has been shamed and vilified and arrested while being subjected to having her mug shot taken, fingerprints processed and held in custody until she could post the $1,500 bond. And we haven't even gotten around to her legal fees yet.

It's certainly true that ignorance of the law is no defense. If found guilty (duh!) of playing yippee-ki-yay with a manatee, Gutierrez faces a possible $500 fine or up to 60 days in the slammer.

Go ahead, accuse me of being soft on crime. But hasn't Gutierrez already been punished enough?

There is no evidence the manatee Gutierrez hopped on suffered any ill effects. And who could deny after all the attention that Gutierrez has learned her lesson?

If there is any justice, a judge will impose some kind of fine and withhold adjudication, thereby allowing Gutierrez to avoid being burdened with a criminal record.

And then sheriff's office can get back to arresting brigands who deserve to be arrested rather than manatee molls.

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