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Clerk is guilty in service dog case

The store clerk who didn't let a local blind man and his Seeing Eye dog into a BP convenience store in November pleaded guilty Thursday morning to a misdemeanor charge of violating the rights of a disabled person.

Mohammed Hamed, 63, of Brooksville was sentenced to six months of probation and 25 hours of community service at Hernando County's Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind. County Judge Don Scaglione's sentence included a bit of a twist, too - an unusual emphasis on added public awareness. He ordered Hamed to take out an ad in "a local paper" explaining the law.

Hamed could have gotten 60 days in jail for not allowing David Bearden and his service dog into the store.

Bearden was shocked by the sentence - in a good way.

"In a very pleasant way," he said outside the courtroom.

"The judge made his decision," said Hamed's lawyer, Alan Howell of Dade City. "Mr. Hamed is going to go forward with his life and comply with the court's decision."

"This certainly helps reinforce that this is a legal right and that there are consequences for denying it," said Marion Gwizdala, president of Tampa's Florida Association of Guide Dog Users and vice president of the national association.

All of this started back on Nov. 5, when Hamed took a look at Bearden and his dog, a highly trained German shepherd named Isaac, and made them leave the convenience store at W Jefferson Street and Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Brooksville.

Bearden, 48, who lost almost all of his vision in a biohazard accident 16 years ago, had stopped at the BP for a soda. He is a longtime activist for the blind and president of the National Federation for the Blind for Hernando and east Pasco counties.

The Americans with Disabilities Act and state and federal law say people with service animals are allowed in public places like taxis, restaurants, schools and stores.

"I gave him the law three times," Bearden said when it happened.

This is hardly an isolated incident.

A woman with a service dog in Jacksonville wasn't allowed in a taxi in February 2003 because the driver said he was allergic to the animal. The owner of a rib restaurant in Tampa pleaded guilty to similar charges in March and received a similar sentence. A teacher in Southern California sued her school district to have her service dog in her classroom.

"It's a nationwide issue, and it's an issue of ignorance," Gwizdala said. "But people with service animals are standing up for their rights more."

"We're not willing to stand around and be abused anymore," Bearden said in an interview in January at his home in Hill 'n Dale. "We're just not.

"This dog is my eyes," he said.

On Thursday, Scaglione told Hamed, a naturalized U.S. citizen with no prior criminal record, that the advertisement needed to run a week and be at least 3-by-3 inches in size.

"I think it's important for the general public as well as other businesses to know" the law, the judge said.

Hamed had no comment after the sentencing.

"It was a victory for everybody with a disability," Bearden said. "Not just me. Everybody."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sppimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

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