NEW PORT RICHEY — The city has dropped the charges and fines levied against at least five Black Lives Matter activists who were cited by New Port Richey police officers for violating the city’s noise ordinance while they took part in protests against racism and police brutality this summer.
Christina Boneta, 32, said she faced more than $2,500 in fines she received while using a megaphone during August’s marches through downtown New Port Richey. She said she was offered a plea deal by city attorney Tim Driscoll in which she would pay just $75 — but she and her lawyers refused to budge, she said, asserting her belief that she had done nothing wrong.
The city dropped the cases on Thursday, court records show.
“I’m so happy that we stuck to our guns,” Boneta said. “We knew that we were being targeted, we knew that they were in the wrong and we didn’t budge.”
The fines stemmed from a strict noise ordinance New Port Richey enacted in 2017 to crack down on loud downtown bars and clubs. But activists believe New Port Richey police officers used the ordinance to disrupt their 2020 protests, which started nationwide after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25.
At least five Pasco County protesters received a total of 14 citations adding up to more than $4,700, the Tampa Bay Times found in November.
Attorney Luke Lirot, who helped represent the group, said Friday that New Port Richey’s noise ordinance is “problematic” and gives too much power to police to determine when the ordinance is being broken. The language allows officers to determine via their own hearing whether to issue a citation.
“They need to take a good hard look at that ordinance in light of all the constitutional requirements affecting people’s First Amendment rights,” he said. “It’d be well advised that the ordinance not be enforced until there’s a complete re-write.”
New Port Richey City Manager Debbie Manns said Friday that the city dropped the citations against this group of protesters to shorten a backlog in code enforcement cases. She also said protesters have reduced their megaphone use recently, so city officials no longer felt the need to prosecute them.
“There’s just other cases that are more important at this time,” she said, adding that the city has no plans to change the ordinance.
Another attorney for the protesters, Joshua Sheridan, on Thursday posted to Facebook praising lawyers Lirot, Laurie Chane and James Shaw Jr. for doing the “heavy lifting.” Sheridan noted that the noise ordinance was “rarely if ever been used” and the case had “some glaring drafting errors.” Boneta said the attorneys represented them pro bono.
“They tried to scare us and said we were going to lose and have to pay a big number,” she said of the officers. “That’s what they do — scare tactics. We just kept walking into that courtroom, saying we weren’t guilty and continued to fight. I hope others who see this will do the same.”
Boneta, however, said she still plans to fight charges of refusing to sign a noise citation and resisting an officer without violence.
She was arrested on those charges during an Aug. 28 march when New Port Richey police say she refused to sign a noise citation. In a police report, Cpl. Timothy Berge said he asked Boneta to sign the citation, but she continued to yell into her megaphone.
“As I was walking back to my patrol car, I heard Christina announce she was not going to stop using the megaphone,” Berge wrote. He said he then attempted to approach Boneta again but protesters locked arms and formed a wall.
The officer wrote that he warned her she could go to jail if she did not accept and sign the citation. She told him to mail it to her, the report said, saying that’s how she received four previous citations. The officer then arrested her. Boneta said she did not hear the warning that she would be arrested.
“No matter how many noise complaints, we’re not going to quiet down,” she said. “These agencies need to know that they’re being policed, too — by the community.”
• • •
Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times
WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.
WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.
WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.
CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.
HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.