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Clearwater woman settles wrongful arrest lawsuit

On the first and only night Nicolette Shepard spent in a jail cell, the woman next to her screamed all night.

Another female inmate, who was coming down from a methadone high, claimed to be God. She ordered Shepard to bow down to her or go to hell.

Shepard, 33, felt she was already there. She didn't sleep. She cried. She refused to use the restroom.

Jail isn't meant to be pleasant for anyone, but Shepard shouldn't have been there in the first place. She was wrongfully arrested and jailed on a traffic charge in which she should have only received a ticket and a $30 fine.

She sued the Clearwater Police Department and the officer who arrested her in May. Last week, city attorneys and Shepard's attorney settled the case. Shepard will receive $25,000 from the city, about one-third of which will go to her attorney.

An internal police investigation found that the officer who arrested Shepard, Sgt. Richard Harris, made an unlawful arrest. Police Chief Sid Klein agreed with the finding Friday and will meet with department staffers to determine Harris' punishment.

"We made a mistake," police spokesman Wayne Shelor said of the arrest. "We were wrong."

Harris declined to speak with a reporter, but police officials say he is a top-notch officer. He is highly decorated, with a personnel file thick with commendations and praise, including letters from citizens and a unit citation from Klein.

In more than 21 years with the department, Harris has been the subject of an internal affairs investigation only once before. He received a letter of reprimand in 1996 for permitting an escape.

Shepard said last week that she has lukewarm feelings about the settlement. She mostly doesn't want this happen to anyone else.

"I don't want anyone to go through what I had to go through," she said. "How much is 24 hours of your life worth? I cannot put a price on my life."

Late last year, Shepard was working as a dental assistant in Tampa during the week but took a gig peddling concessions for an arts festival in Dunedin on a November Sunday. She also coaxed the man who was living with her at the time, Marice Browdy, 23, to sell lemonade and hot dogs with her.

The festival earned her some extra cash, which she had found in short supply since moving to Florida from Texas the year before. Money had been so tight that she had let the tag on her green Ford Mustang convertible expire _ for 16 months.

After leaving the festival, Shepard was driving home to Brandon. She was on State Road 60 and had reached the Courtney Campbell Parkway when Harris pulled her over.

Shepard claims she didn't know one important fact: Browdy was wanted in Hardee County on charges of selling cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school and violating his probation.

Harris got out of his patrol car and told Shepard he stopped her for having an expired tag. She acknowledged it and told the officer she couldn't afford to pay the fee.

Harris asked her passenger his name. Harris notes in his police report that Browdy told him his last name was Brown. Shepard says that Browdy told him his correct name but that Harris misunderstood.

Harris then went back to his patrol car and ran the name Marice Brown through his computer. No information came up. Harris was suspicious that the couple was lying about the man's name.

When he asked Browdy for his Social Security number, he said he didn't know it. And when Harris asked him for his date of birth, he hesitated. (Though Browdy did give him his real date of birth).

Shepard says Harris ordered her out the Mustang and gave her two options:

"He said, "I can give you a ticket or arrest you. And if you don't tell me who your friend is, you're going to jail,' " Shepard says.

She twice told him it was Brown, he wrote in his police report.

Harris says he told Shepard that if he found out she was lying to him, he would arrest her for obstruction of justice. Harris told her if she told him the truth, he would let her go with just a ticket.

Shepard claims the officer told a civilian woman who was on a ride-along with him to "go get the handcuffs for this b----." (Shelor says the woman didn't get out of the car.)

Harris searched Browdy and found a Florida identification card in his left front pants pocket. He ran his name through the computer and discovered the outstanding warrants. Both Shepard and Browdy were taken to the Pinellas County Jail.

"I just started crying because I've never been in trouble before," Shepard says.

Browdy also was charged with giving a false name to a police officer. He later was sentenced to two years in prison.

An officer recommended to Harris that he charge Shepard with obstructing justice for allegedly lying about Browdy's name, but he didn't. He later claimed he was in a hurry.

Instead, Shepard was booked into the jail on a charge of having an expired tag for more than six months. "I basically took a short cut rather than charging her with obstructing . . .," Harris later told investigators.

That turned out to be a mistake.

Shepard's bail was $250 and, with her family in Texas, she had no one to call to bail her out.

After a sleepless night in jail, Shepard says she was confused and scared. She went before a judge the next day and immediately pleaded guilty. She received a $225 fine and was released.

"They went so fast, I was totally confused, the whole way that they treat you like cattle," she says now. "That's when I decided I better get a lawyer, because this doesn't feel right."

The law used against Shepard had been changed in July 1998. Under the change, people stopped a first time with an expired tag were to receive a ticket, but not be arrested. If they were stopped a second time, then they could be arrested.

Shepard hired Tampa attorney Katherine Earle Yanes, who filed suit in federal court in Tampa on May 22. She also had Shepard's conviction vacated and is working to have her record expunged.

Yanes discovered that this wasn't the first time a Clearwater police officer had made this mistake.

On Dec. 19, 1999, Officer Michael Duffy pulled over Tampa doctor Jae Joo on S Gulfview Boulevard for an expired tag.

Duffy tried to give Joo a ticket, but he refused to sign it. So Duffy arrested him and started to drive him to the jail.

But before he got there, Duffy's sergeant called and told him that the law had changed and that Joo couldn't be arrested. Duffy turned around, brought him back and released him.

Joo made a complaint to the department's Office of Professional Standards the next day. An investigation sustained the complaint. Duffy received a letter of reprimand in his file.

Yanes said, "It just makes me concerned about whether the officers have been appropriately trained in regard to the change in the law."

Shelor said Clearwater police officers are well-trained.

Harris told department investigators that he was unaware that the charge had been decriminalized in 1998, though he told investigators he recalled receiving a department bulletin in September 1998 that told officers of the law change. But he pointed out that the bulletin "is 16 pages long and the passage regarding the traffic law change was only two sentences mixed in with numerous other law changes."

Shephard has since moved back to Texas. She says the experience affected her so deeply that she plans to never come to Clearwater again.