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Blind man says bar illegally kept out guide dog

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Marion Gwizdala says he and a friend just wanted to grab a quick beer Friday night at Darby's Pub in Brandon. But he never got past the front door.

Instead, Gwizdala, who is blind, said the bar manager wouldn't let him in because he wanted to bring his guide dog with him. Even after Gwizdala called Hillsborough sheriff's deputies to explain to the manager that state law required the dog to be allowed in, Gwizdala said he was still told no.

Now he says he wants to press criminal charges against the bar and its manager, and might file a civil suit as well.

"I'm angry. I'm upset," said Gwizdala, 36, a computer science student at the University of South Florida. "At this point, it's a matter of making sure it doesn't happen again."

The pub manager, Roy Wilson Jr., 36, says he apologized for the incident and didn't realize what the law said.

"I thought I was following the letter of the law by not allowing the dog in" because of health codes, Wilson said.

Florida law says the blind and other disabled people are entitled to full and equal access to places where the general public is invited, and are allowed to be accompanied by a guide dog. Anyone who refuses admittance is guilty of a second-degree misdemeanor.

Gwizdala and his friend, George VanWallendael, said they went to Darby's Pub in the Brandon Mall about 10:30 p.m. Friday. But the assistant manager at the door told them Gwizdala's black Labrador retriever, Diamond, couldn't come in.

"I said, "He's my guide dog. He goes wherever I go,' " Gwizdala said. The men said they asked for the manager, Wilson, who repeated that Gwizdala could enter, but not the dog, Gwizdala said.

Gwizdala called sheriff's deputies, who explained the law to Wilson. The answer was still no, Gwizdala and VanWallendael said.

"I can understand some ignorance, especially with animals in public places," VanWallendael said. "What really got me was when the sheriff's deputy came out and told him point blank, his statement was, "I'm not going to let the dog in.' What are you going to do with someone like that?"

Wilson said the deputy confirmed the law. Wilson then told Gwizdala that he and the dog would be allowed in, but not until the next night. Wilson said he told them, "I just don't want to deal with it tonight" because of the commotion.

The deputy helped Gwizdala fill out paper work to press charges on Friday, Gwizdala said.

Gwizdala, who is secretary of the Tampa chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, said that he was barred from entering a business with his dog once before, in 1988, but that the state attorney's office declined to prosecute, telling him the proprietor didn't know about the law.

"My concern at this point is that they're going to look at it again and say, "Well, gee, there was a lack of information about the law,'

" he said.

Hank Lavandera, who heads the misdemeanor division for the state attorney's office, said his goal is to make sure people know about the law and comply with it.

"The statute, in my mind at least, requires some sort of knowing action on the part of an individual," he said. "If this person has been placed on notice of that particular statute, and if they choose to violate it, then we'll go forward."