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Chief judge says he relied on Pinellas sheriff’s word to keep protesters in jail

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri asked to have protesters held longer than usual. But the chief judge says what the sheriff told him doesn't match what the protesters were arrested for.

During the first week of protests against racism and police brutality, the Pinellas County sheriff and the circuit’s top judge came to an agreement that allowed demonstrators to be held in jail overnight without bail.

But after news about the unusual arrangement broke and blew up on social media — sparking outrage from the American Civil Liberties Union, among others — Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino this week issued a response:

What Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told the chief judge the protesters were doing didn’t match the allegations against them.

Related: Pinellas protesters are being held overnight in jail without bail

“Unfortunately, none of the facts and circumstances regarding the alleged violent acts, that had been described to the chief judge by the sheriff, were included in these arrest papers,” Rondolino’s statement says.

“Similarly, the charges actually cited in the affidavits in question were not serious felony crimes or even misdemeanors involving violence. This lead to the conclusion that the judge had intended to hold non-violent law abiding demonstrators without bond, which was certainly not the case. The fact that the violent circumstances witnessed by the sheriff did not become part of the arrest papers resulted in this problem.”

Rondolino more clearly defined the process for bail deviation requests going forward. If an officer makes a similar request in the future, the chief judge said, the reasons for deviating must be submitted to the court.

Sixth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino
Sixth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino [ Sixth Judicial Circuit ]

The statement was issued about a week after the Tampa Bay Times reported that the jail was initially holding protesters overnight without bail. It was in response to a request by defense attorney Haydee Oropesa, who discussed the situation in a Facebook Live meeting.

Gualtieri, who runs the county jail, requested permission from Rondolino to hold those facing charges of unlawful assembly — second-degree misdemeanors — overnight, without setting bail. He had to run it by the judge because it deviates from court guidelines, which recommends releasing those facing that charge.

Instead, unable to post bail or be freed from the jail, defendants had to appear before a judge the next day in a proceeding known as a first appearance hearing. The judge would then decide a bail amount based on the facts presented by police.

Gualtieri previously told the Times that he made the request “because of the attack on law enforcement, the aggressive nature of it, the civil unrest.”

Those first few days of protests followed a pattern: demonstrators would gather outside the St. Petersburg Police Department, officers would emerge in riot gear, the two parties would briefly clash, then police would declare an unlawful assembly and order everyone to go home, breaking up the crowd with smoke bombs and non-lethal rounds.

Some arrests made during the protests indicated potential violence, such as a June 2 case in which St. Petersburg police said three people were found with the supplies needed to make Molotov cocktail bombs that were intended to be used against police.

Related: COVID-19 outbreak spreads in Pinellas County jail
Protesters gather outside of St. Petersburg Police Department headquarters on May 31, 2020 to protest against police brutality and the death of  George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Protesters gather outside of St. Petersburg Police Department headquarters on May 31, 2020 to protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

The chief judge’s statement matches the accounts of some protesters who said it was a handful of agitators responsible for escalating tensions with police. In the weeks since, demonstrators have avoided confrontations with police and the marches have been largely peaceful.

Protester Paula Melgarejo told the Times that she and her neighbor were arrested June 2 as they stopped to take a breath about a block away from the St. Petersburg Police Department headquarters following that night’s unlawful assembly declaration.

“I came into contact with the defendant, who after receiving multiple orders to disperse was placed under arrest ... for unlawful assembly,” a Pinellas deputy wrote in her arrest report.

The report doesn’t describe any violent acts. Yet Melgarejo was held overnight, then given $1,000 bail the next morning. That’s four times the recommended high bail amount for a charge of that level.

After reading Rondolino’s updated statement, the sheriff said that the police reports could have better described the violence that led up to the unlawful assembly order.

“It doesn’t mean it wasn’t there,” Gualtieri said. “It just means that it wasn’t articulated.”

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, pictured at a recent County Commission meeting.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, pictured at a recent County Commission meeting. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

He said he can’t speak to the allegations of each arrest, and the extent to which each defendant was involved in the “melee” he said he experienced. But it doesn’t matter, he said, because those who were there peacefully should have dispersed immediately.

“If you were given a lawful directive to leave, why didn’t you leave?” Gualtieri said. “You’re in the middle of a melee. You’re not in the middle of a peaceful protest. And it escalated very fast.”

Demonstrators said police told them they had 3 to 5 minutes to leave the area — but officers started throwing smoke bombs and moving into the crowd about 30 seconds to a minute after the warning.

The sheriff’s arrangement with the chief judge is also the focus of a Florida Bar complaint filed against Gualtieri, who is also an attorney, by Pinellas County sheriff’s candidate James McLynas, who is running in the Democratic primary. He alleges that it was unethical for Gualtieri to personally contact Rondolino and request the change in bail. It also accuses the sheriff of lying to the judge about the violent acts.

Gualtieri denied the allegations.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino’s statement

Although there have been several formal statements issued by the court and official comments by the sheriff as well as published articles regarding certain “no bond” arrests, there may be some people who are not aware of all the facts. It is true that the chief judge was called by the sheriff one evening and was informed that the sheriff was actually present at the scene of a violent confrontation taking place at the St. Petersburg police station. The sheriff described riot-like circumstances which included rocks, bottles and fireworks being thrown at officers. There was a request for the judge to authorize those violators at the scene to be arrested and held without bond until the next morning’s advisory hearing. At that hearing, the first appearance judge could listen to the facts, find out about each defendant’s prior record and his or her ties to the community.

This phone call, although unusual, was in conformity with established procedures which specifically authorize an officer to contact a judge when the officer does not feel the bond suggested by the bond schedule is appropriate. In fact, in this instance, the judge’s name was noted on the complaint affidavits exactly as required by administrative order. Unfortunately, none of the facts and circumstances regarding the alleged violent acts, that had been described to the chief judge by the sheriff, were included in these arrest papers. Similarly, the charges actually cited in the affidavits in question were not serious felony crimes or even misdemeanors involving violence. This lead to the conclusion that the judge had intended to hold non-violent law abiding demonstrators without bond, which was certainly not the case. The fact that the violent circumstances witnessed by the sheriff did not become part of the arrest papers resulted in this problem.

There was not a “blanket order” to hold people who participate in non-violent demonstrations in jail. There was not and never will be such a policy here. The judges have been advised that, in the future, if an officer calls seeking to have a higher or lower bond authorized by a judge, a copy of the formal complaint, with the reasons for deviation included, should be submitted and reviewed by the court.

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