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Court won't protect SunCruz

A federal judge again has refused to protect the SunCruz IV from state authorities, but an attorney for the casino boat is taking on state agencies on another front.

U.S. District Judge Henry Lee Adams has ruled that Paradise of Port Richey, the company that operates the Crystal River casino boat, does not warrant special protection from the Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Marine Patrol.

The boat hasn't operated casino cruises from the old Crystal River Yacht Club since a second casino boat captain was arrested three weeks ago on charges that he damaged the river bottom.

Now the company, commonly known as SunCruz, plans to seek monetary damages against a slew of state agencies that its attorney says are preventing the company from doing business.

Chris Conner and Jan Piet Van Vlaandern, the two SunCruz IV captains arrested over the past few weeks, also might seek claims for damages.

SunCruz attorney Robert Merkle has outlined his complaints in a notice sent to the DEP and other agencies. Named as possible defendants in the suit are Attorney General Robert Butterworth, the state of Florida and several officials within the Marine Patrol and the DEP.

Locally, Marine Patrol officers Donald Tyre and William Valentine are also named.

State statute requires anyone seeking monetary damages against the state to warn the agency six months before filing the lawsuit.

"The ball's really in their court," Merkle said Monday. "We've done everything we possibly can do to seek a reasonable solution to this thing. They persist in effectively keeping us out of business."

In the notice sent to state agencies, Merkle describes the "unreasonable arrest and seizure of and malicious prosecution of" the two captains as one basis for the suit.

Merkle also repeats previously stated claims against the state: that the enforcement of environmental laws against SunCruz has been malicious; that the state is preventing SunCruz from engaging in legal interstate commerce; and that the state has fed incorrect information about the casino boat to local media.

The patrol, which is the DEP's law enforcement arm, has cited two SunCruz IV captains for stirring up silt in the Crystal River and booked one of them into the Citrus County Jail. In an order issued last week, Adams ruled the agency _ despite the casino boat company's claims _ had probable cause to arrest the captains.

"The evidence needed for probable cause is far less than that required for a criminal conviction," Adams wrote. "All an officer needs in order to make an arrest is probable cause to believe that the suspect is committing or has committed a crime."

Merkle had asked Adams for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction that would prevent the DEP and the Marine Patrol from arresting casino boat captains and enforcing what Merkle called "unlawful" water quality standards.

The state agencies have maintained that they have targeted the SunCruz IV because it causes much damage, not because it is a casino boat.

Merkle's request, denied by Adams on Wednesday, was not the first time the attorney had asked the federal judge to protect SunCruz from the state. At a hearing in Tampa on Oct. 17, Adams ruled against the casino boat company.

Days later, Merkle again asked Adams to stop the DEP and Marine Patrol. This time, he accused the agencies of arresting casino boat captains without probable cause.

The controversy over the casino boat began in February, when rumors first surfaced that a casino company planned to begin operating from the old yacht club.

So far, two lawsuits have been filed. The DEP sued SunCruz, seeking an injunction to stop the boat from muddying the river. That case has been moved from state to federal court, where a judge is considering remanding it back to the state.

In a second suit filed in federal court, SunCruz is asking a judge to stop the DEP from selectively enforcing its laws against the casino boat company.