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Sheriff: Back off the shirt patrol

Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice said his deputies acted properly when charging a woman for wearing a sheriff's T-shirt.

But on Thursday, the sheriff directed his deputies to stop enforcing the state law that makes it a misdemeanor for anyone to wear or display an item that could fool a person into thinking they worked for law enforcement.

"I want my deputies to understand that the mere wearing of an article of clothing that has a law enforcement logo on it is not an arrestable offense," Rice said.

"In view of all the judicial time involved, the slant put on it by the media and the public response, we're not going to enforce this."

Kimberly Sult, 24, was found guilty by a jury late Wednesday for wearing the T-shirt and displaying an old sheriff's ID after deputies confronted her in June and asked her whether she worked for the sheriff.

The deputies said she lied to them and said she still worked for Rice, even though she had been fired as a civilian detention employee in late 1999.

Sult denied the allegations.

Jurors said the judge's instructions on the law gave them no choice but to convict, though they thought the case shouldn't have been prosecuted.

A judge fined Sult $300 and withheld a formal finding of guilt.

Rice said the case wasn't just about the T-shirt. He said it was about a woman who misrepresented herself in other ways.

But Rice said, "We had a three-day trial over a $300 fine. A whole lot more was made out of this than it really was."

Rice said his decision doesn't mean he endorses people dressing to look like police. That puts them in danger by making them the target of real criminals, he said.

And his deputies will still arrest anyone who wears a police item "in the furtherance of another" crime or to "gain a fraudulent advantage."

Rice said his decision has no effect on enforcement of the felony against impersonating an officer.

That law requires someone to impersonate an officer while conducting another act, such as a suspect who dresses as a deputy to illegally detain someone.

Rice said he also plans to remind local stores that it is illegal to sell police items to the public.

Sult's attorney, John Trevena, said sheriff's T-shirts and a wide array of other items, from badges to shirt patches, are widely sold.

Trevena once represented a man charged in 1998 under the same law for wearing an LAPD cap. That charge was dropped laterwith Rice's apology.

The T-shirt case attracted wide media attention. Trevena said the sheriff was reacting to bad publicity.

"The defense of this case demonstrates how much more effective the media can be in obtaining justice for a client than the judicial system," Trevena said.

Prosecutor Lydia Wardell said, "At some point, Mr. Trevena has to decide when media coverage for himself gives way to the best interests of his client."

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