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Facing shelter-in-place order, what’s up with Pinellas evictions?

Pinellas officials haven’t taken up the issue. But an administrative order issued Tuesday by the Florida Supreme Court does.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri attends a meeting on Wednesday in downtown Clearwater where the Pinellas County Commission deliberated a proposed "safer at home" order to legally encourage the county's 1 million residents to stay at home except for essential activity like trips for groceries, medical needs and jobs deemed essential. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include information from a Florida Supreme Court order issued Tuesday night.

As Pinellas County’s nearly 1 million residents brace for a stay-at-home order to go into effect Thursday to help curb the spread of coronavirus, a question remains for some vulnerable residents:

What if you’re kicked out of your home?

While counties in Florida, including Hillsborough, have suspended some or all eviction proceedings, Pinellas officials haven’t taken up the issue. But an administrative order issued Tuesday by the Florida Supreme Court does.

The order, which applies statewide, suspends the last step of the eviction process, called the writ of possession. That’s the document law enforcement takes to a dwelling to kick out a tenant and transfer ownership back to the landlord. The document also occurs in foreclosure cases to boot out residents of a foreclosed property and transfer the property to its new owner.

“It’s not reversing your eviction or anything," said Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke. “It’s just basically putting it on hold.”

Related: Pinellas orders county to stay at home amid coronavirus, first in Tampa Bay to enact measure

Each clerk of the court is responsible for issuing writs of possession in their counties. Burke’s office is responsible for those issued in Pinellas.

The suspension started Wednesday and will last through close of business April 17, according to the order. During that time, all other eviction and foreclosure proceedings in Pinellas will continue, Burke said — up until that final step. That allows residents who would otherwise be removed from their homes to shelter in place for as long as the Supreme Court order is effective, Burke said.

The issue of evictions first came up in the Tampa Bay area March 18, when Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister announced he would temporarily stop executing eviction orders. Miami-Dade and Orange counties have taken similar steps, and Gov. Ron DeSantis said he would consider a statewide moratorium.

During a Pinellas commission meeting last week, Commissioner Long asked Sheriff Bob Gualtieri if he could stop evictions in their county. The sheriff answered that there was no legal mechanism to do so.

“Even in this kind of situation?”Long asked.

“There’s nothing in the law,” Gualtieri said.

“Oh, for heaven’s sakes,” Long replied.

In Hillsborough, Sheriff Chad Chronister’s authority to cease carrying out evictions comes from the courts. Hillsborough Circuit Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta issued an order March 18 that laid out how the courts will operate in a limited capacity during the pandemic. It also gave the sheriff the authority to stay the execution of several civil processes, including evictions.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino has issued similar orders regarding court operations. But the orders don’t address evictions.

When asked why this week, circuit court spokesman Steve Thompson said in a statement that “decisions on these matters are very fact specific” and judges will handle them on a case-by-case basis.

Times staff writers Tracey McManus and Josh Solomon contributed to this report.

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