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A tense day in court makes teenager's point

Published Aug. 24, 2005

She was nervous when she awoke Friday morning.

Whitney Gallagher slipped on a black pinstripe blouse and white skirt, then swept half her blond hair into a ponytail.

The 14-year-old wouldn't attend her algebra and honors English classes Friday. Instead, she climbed into her parents' car and headed to a Clearwater courthouse.

The Pinellas Park family walked through metal detectors and sat outside the courtroom. Gallagher's hands began to shake, and she tugged on her mom's shirt.

"Mom," she said softly, "I think I'm going to be sick."

The 9 a.m. court date was the culmination of a three-month ordeal that began on a sunny afternoon in September, when Gallagher and two other high school freshmen walked on the campus of their old school, Pinellas Park Middle. They wanted to visit a favorite English teacher.

But as they walked across the campus about 4:05 p.m, a Pinellas sheriff's deputy frisked the teens, handcuffed two of them and placed them in the back of his patrol car, the teens said. He released them a half hour later with a trespassing citation.

Gallagher ran home, crying hysterically. She thought the citation would prevent her from getting a college scholarship.

The teens' parents were angered by the deputy's actions. He didn't warn them to leave, just handcuffed them, the parents said.

"It's too extreme," said Gallagher's mother, Sharon Croom.

The Sheriff's Office later exonerated Deputy Rick Helms from doing anything wrong. School officers must control access to the grounds to make them safe, the Sheriff's Office said. Also, Helms had been having problems with teens coming on campus and disrupting school.

Prosecutors offered the teens a deal: Ten hours of community service, and they could avoid a trial.

One of the teens accepted. But the remaining two _ Gallagher and her friend, Dean Hill, 14, refused.

"I've always told her, "You better be willing to stand up and take the punishment if you do something wrong,' " Croom said. "But I didn't think she did anything wrong."

Croom made an appointment with Clearwater attorney John McGuire.

"She was mad and crying," McGuire recalled Friday, "and her daughter was scared."

He understood why Croom was upset, but could also see the situation from the deputy's perspective. He didn't envy an officer who had to spend all day at a middle school.

McGuire thought, however, that the deputy erred in citing the teens without a warning. And he was so impressed with Gallagher _ who seemed like a good kid _ that he offered his services for free.

"I'll win this case, and we'll get through it," he told mother and daughter. "Trust the justice system. Maybe you'll even learn something."

He agreed to represent 14-year-old Hill, too.

McGuire spent the next few weeks preparing for trial. The stakes weren't very high _ the teens would probably get community service if found guilty. Still, McGuire wanted to win.

The night before trial, McGuire was relaxing at home when his 8-year-old son handed him a miniature Rubik's cube. "Daddy," he said, "If you get bored, you can play with this."

"I thought that was pretty cute," McGuire recalled. "And then I started thinking to myself, if a police officer handcuffed my son five years down the road, I would be irate. It wasn't until then that I realized how traumatic this could be on a whole family."

They stepped inside Judge Robert Morris' courtroom about 9 a.m.

Deputy Helms recounted what had happened that day. The prosecution rested.

Then, McGuire told the judge that the state had failed to prove its case. Among his arguments was that the students could not be cited for trespassing without warning.

After a short recess, the judge acquitted the teens.

Gallagher turned toward her mother, who offered a thumbs up.

The family bought McGuire a cup of coffee at the courthouse cafe to thank him. They hoped the case would send a message that deputies can't arrest children _ or anyone, for that matter _ without good reason.

Gallagher and her mom spent the rest of the afternoon at Tyrone Mall, eating Mexican food and buying Gallagher several skirts and shirts to celebrate.

"It's a breath of fresh air, now that it's over," Gallagher said. "But I'm glad we saw it through."

Jamie Thompson can be reached at (727) 893-8455. Send e-mail to