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Clearwater police no longer arresting protesters over abortion clinic buffer

Top prosecutor says their actions don’t rise to the level of a criminal act.
 
Published Dec. 5, 2023|Updated Dec. 5, 2023

The Clearwater Police Department is no longer arresting protesters who violate a vehicle safety zone at an abortion clinic after the county’s top prosecutor said he would not pursue obstruction charges from the incidents.

The City Council enacted the buffer zone in March, which prohibits protesters from entering the driveway of Bread and Roses Woman’s Health Center or the portion of sidewalk within 5 feet of either side of the driveway. The measure was a response to the escalation of Saturday demonstrations where some protesters blocked cars and walked up to windows to yell at patients entering and exiting.

Police Chief Eric Gandy said officers had been enforcing the ordinance first with verbal warnings, then with citations and, finally, arrests as a last resort for same-day, repeat violators.

White paint and a sign indicate a 5-foot vehicle buffer zone that protesters cannot enter at the Bread and Roses Woman's Health Center on Highland Avenue in Clearwater.
White paint and a sign indicate a 5-foot vehicle buffer zone that protesters cannot enter at the Bread and Roses Woman's Health Center on Highland Avenue in Clearwater. [ U.S. District Court ]

Since the buffer zone’s creation, one protester has been arrested on misdemeanor obstruction charges for allegedly violating the ordinance, according to records provided by the department. Nicholas Bosstick, 26, of Brooksville, was arrested eight times between August and October for allegedly walking through the buffer zone after receiving warnings and citations.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said the behavior of walking back and forth across the driveway is “definitely annoying,” but it doesn’t rise to the criminal act of obstructing officers from performing their legal duties. Wording in the city’s ordinance also provides for civil citations for violators but does not include arrest as a penalty, he added.

Bartlett declined to prosecute each of Bosstick’s obstruction charges, and in October, Gandy said his department discussed the issue with the state attorney’s office. As a result, the chief decided his officers would no longer arrest repeat violators even though the protests continue to be “chaotic” and a drain on police resources.

“I can’t tell people in good conscience to continue making arrests for something that won’t be prosecuted,” Gandy said.

Bartlett said if a protester was standing in front of a car and preventing it from exiting or entering the facility while ignoring an officer’s command to move, that might qualify as obstruction. But he said the incidents so far have fallen short of that.

“If there’s criminal conduct exhibited there, we would go forward on a charge like we would anybody else, but we’re not there,” Bartlett said.

Representatives of Bread and Roses did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. But tensions continue to be high between protesters, patients and the volunteers who escort women to and from the clinic parking lot. Issues also arise with passersby traveling along Highland Avenue.

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On an October morning, a protester standing on the sidewalk screamed racial slurs at a Black woman entering the clinic and yelled “filthy whore” at a woman driving by, according to a video and email submitted to the city by a Bread and Roses volunteer.

Another protester, Bosstick, is shown in the video pacing the driveway and yelling, “Worthless pieces of trash” toward a car in the parking lot. His attorney, Jerry Theophilopoulos, said Bosstick was addressing a male in the vehicle and referring to men being trash “when they acquiesce in the killing of their unborn child.”

Nicholas Bosstick protests in the driveway of Bread and Roses Woman's Health Center as shown in a video captured by a clinic volunteer.
Nicholas Bosstick protests in the driveway of Bread and Roses Woman's Health Center as shown in a video captured by a clinic volunteer. [ City of Clearwater ]

Theophilopoulos said the eight arrests of his client for walking in the buffer zone should never have occurred.

“There is real crime out on the streets of Clearwater — drug dealers, murderers, etc. — and it is a shame the Clearwater Police Department illegally arrested Mr. Bosstick eight times at the abortion clinic by making up a crime that did not exist,” Theophilopoulos said. “That is the real crime in all of this.”

Bread and Roses volunteers previously said protests at the clinic intensified after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last summer to overturn Roe v. Wade and the federal right to abortion.

Abortion remains legal under the Florida Constitution, but the state last year imposed a new ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a law that is being challenged in state court. Should Florida prevail in that case, which is now before the Florida Supreme Court, a stricter six-week ban approved this year by the Legislature would take effect.

In response to the buffer zone, members of the Pinellas Park-based group Florida Preborn Rescue sued Clearwater in May, arguing the ordinance violates their First Amendment rights and “targets the speech of people with a pro-life viewpoint,” according to the lawsuit.

On Oct. 20, a Tampa federal judge denied the group’s request to remove the buffer zone while the lawsuit plays out in court. Florida Preborn has appealed.

While the police department is no longer arresting buffer zone violators, Gandy said officers are relying on citations for enforcement. Tickets start at $75 but can rise to $500 for subsequent offenses.

So far, tickets haven’t been a deterrent for Bosstick. Since March, police have issued Bosstick 29 citations totaling $11,662, according to court records. On a single day, Oct. 28, he was issued 10 $500 tickets.

Another protester has been issued three citations, according to records provided by the department.

Bosstick paid his first $75 ticket in March. He pleaded not guilty to the other 28, which have all been assigned a pretrial hearing for Thursday, according to court records.

Theophilopoulos said his client is challenging the citations because he believes the buffer zone is unconstitutional and prevents him from being able to talk to women coming and going from the clinic.

But in her ruling to keep the buffer zone during Florida Preborn’s lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Mary S. Scriven stated that video footage shows “free speech outside the center remains quite robust.”

“If the ordinance curtails speech at all, it does not appear to burden substantially more speech than necessary to serve the significant government interest in vehicular safety,” Scriven wrote.