1. Pinellas

Federal judge rules spat between Sweet Sage Cafe, North Redington Beach should go to trial

NORTH REDINGTON BEACH — In a mixed ruling recently a federal judge decided a years-long legal dispute that started over signs and seats in the Sweet Sage Cafe should go to trial.

Judge William F. Jung found that a section of the town's business tax code violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as he ruled that an allegation of a First Amendment violation by the town should be resolved in a trial.

The town was ordered to halt any further warrantless inspections of the restaurant without express permission from the business and to change its ordinance that now forces businesses to permit such inspections in exchange for receiving a business license.

The judge also dismissed Sheriff Bob Gualtieri as a defendant in the lawsuit and ruled in favor of the town on several counts, including denying allegations of unreasonable search and seizure, trespassing, and that its business tax violated Florida law.

The Sheriff's Office handles code enforcement for the town.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: When is a seat not a seat? Restaurant takes beach town to court for answers

In effect, the rulings last month did not end the years-long legal wrangling over how many seats are permissible at the Sweet Sage Cafe, located at 16725 Gulf Blvd.

Still at issue in restaurant owner John Messmore's federal lawsuit is whether the town has violated the restaurant's First Amendment rights when it began "repeated and often disruptive code enforcement inspections" after the restaurant posted a sign and Messmore spoke regarding the issue at public hearings.

"It is for the jury to determine whether their actions have violated plaintiffs' First Amendment rights," the judge wrote in his ruling.

Messmore said he has won most of the major issues in his lawsuit, as a result of the recent rulings.

"Essentially we got everything we were looking for. We invalidated (the) unconstitutional ordinance and the court permanently enjoined North Redington Beach from entering the restaurant without a warrant," Messmore said.

As for the other counts that were decided in favor of the town, Messmore said they were "merely alternative legal theories" that might achieve the same aim: barring the town from "harassing" the restaurant with repeated inspections.

"The only issue that is left to be tried is whether the town officials, including the town attorney, violated the law by retaliating against us. And we feel there is plenty of evidence indicating that they did," Messmore added.

No date has been set for trial.

Messmore said he has spent more than $100,000 in his battle with North Redington Beach.

It all began when he filed a federal lawsuit in 2015 against the town for ordering him to remove a number of signs at his restaurant. After he won that lawsuit in 2017, Messmore says the town began conducting frequent inspections.

He wants the freedom to decide how to arrange its seating.

The town says the restaurant is limited to 61 seats and according to Messmore, when a table is capable of accommodating four chairs the number of seats is counted as four even if it is set up with only two chairs.

Mayor Bill Queen insists the town is simply trying to enforce the city's codes and is following the recommendations of its lawyers.