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Waveney Ann Moore: Intercepting arrest for minor driving infractions

Waveney Ann Moore

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The Rev. Keith Walbolt of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Seminole offers a closing prayer at the Faith and Action for Strength Together (FAST) prayer vigil Thursday at the Pinellas County Justice Center. Photo by Waveney Ann Moore.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri got a special delivery Thursday, compliments of Faith and Action for Strength Together (FAST), the 44-congregation-strong social justice group. 

Along with an invitation to meet with FAST in September, Gualtieri was presented with about 1,200 postcards aimed at getting him to change the way people with suspended licenses and other non-dangerous driving infractions are handled by Pinellas County law enforcement.  

The delivery followed a brief prayer vigil and press conference in blistering heat on the grounds of the Pinellas County Justice Center. 

Specifically, the interfaith organization wants the sheriff and his law enforcement partners across the county to stop arresting drivers for generally harmless traffic offenses and instead make it possible for them to be eligible for a pre-arrest diversion program. 

The Rev. Jean Cooley of Good Samaritan Presbyterian/UCC in Pinellas Park was among FAST members who shared their hopes, concerns and stories Thursday in the Justice Center’s designated “Expressive Activities Area.” 

The gathering included accounts of how the issue has touched the lives of a recent widow, a pastor’s relative, a member of the clergy, a retired school principal, and the feelings of shame, bewilderment, anger and the need to keep driving to earn a living. 

In an interview the day before, Cooley put the mostly unnecessary arrests for minor driving infractions in terms of criminalizing poverty. That is, harming many who can least afford it. 

“Once their license is suspended and they are arrested for that, then the fees and fines just pile up. It becomes a cascade,” the FAST board member said, explaining that many struggle with trying to pay rent, feed their children, buy diapers and handle the escalating fees and fines of a traffic infraction.  

“Arresting people because they can’t afford to pay fees and fines is wrong,“ Father Tom Anastasia of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Clearwater told those assembled outside the courthouse this week. He spoke of the debilitating effect of an arrest record, such as being unable to get a job or even volunteer in a children’s ministry. 

“These types of punishments should be reserved for people who are actually putting the public in danger, not people who make a paperwork mistake or get caught up in bureaucratic red tape,” Anastasia said. 

According to FAST, driver suspensions affect thousands in Pinellas County.   

“We assume and often think to ourselves that those folks must have done something dangerous,” Pastor Robert Ward of Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg said. Instead, Ward said, 75 percent of license suspensions in Pinellas County are linked to unpaid fees and fines or problems with paperwork, not dangerous offenses such as DUI or reckless driving. 

“According to data we received from the Sheriff’s Office, there were over 2,400 people who got arrested for driving on a suspended license last June through November 2021,” the St. Petersburg pastor said. 

Department records also show that hundreds who were arrested had no idea that they were driving on a suspended license. 

 “Unfortunately, we know that a disproportionate number of those arrested are people of color,” Ward said, going on to refer to a 2020 study by New York University that showed Black drivers are 20 percent more likely to be stopped by police than their white peers. 

“And in Pinellas County, people of color are three times more likely to be arrested for a misdemeanor than white people,” Ward added. 

He went on to tell the story of a family member who couldn’t afford to pay his court fees and his license was suspended. Since his relative had to get to work, he kept driving and was stopped in Gulfport by an officer who said his windows were too dark. Ward said his relative was arrested, missed work that day, subsequently paid hundreds of dollars in fines and fees and also is burdened with an arrest record. 

In an interview this week, Pastor Oscar Banks of Palm Lake Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Petersburg, said FAST learned of the troubling issue of arrests and associated fees and fines related to driver license suspensions and other non-threatening driving offenses at FAST’s house meetings.  

The house meetings consist of “small groups of people who can tell us what concerns they have in Pinellas County,” Banks said. “We heard story after story from people in churches, in the community, who keep having these problems. One of the major things that we’ve learned is that it is something that is affecting people across racial and socio-economic backgrounds, which is interesting.” 

Some people driving with a suspended license have no idea that they’re doing so, he said. Often, it’s because they changed their insurance company and the Department of Motor Vehicles wasn’t notified of their new coverage. 

“There are a lot of crimes people are doing. There are a lot of issues where arrests are necessary,” Banks said. “Do we really want to spend money on courts and jail for these non-violent offenses?” 

FAST is seeking a solution where “people can still get to work and take their children to school and take care of their fees and fines without going to jail,” he said. 

“We know that nothing is just sitting by itself. Everything is connected to the broader issue of affordable housing, to poverty. Most people can’t pay their fees and fines because of poverty. For those who don’t have those expendable incomes, those things can set you back.” 

The interfaith group wants offenses such as driving on a suspended license to be eligible for a pre-arrest diversion program that would include a way to address fees and fines and also restore licenses.   

Responding to several emailed questions, Gualtieri indicated it’s not a straightforward issue.  

“I have met with FAST several times on this specific issue,” he responded. “I have discussed this with them and as always will continue to dialogue with them about issues they raise. What they are asking for is complicated and we have not been able to reach an agreement on how to implement what they are asking for.” 

The sheriff did not accept an invitation from FAST to attend its Nehemiah Action Assembly earlier this year, during which the organization sought to get government officials to agree to address social justice issues such as affordable housing and driving on suspended licenses.  

However, the organization hopes Gualtieri will respond positively to this week’s invitation to meet with them on Sept. 21 and offer a tenable solution to the suspended licenses issue. St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, who is among other law enforcement officials invited to the meeting, has already agreed to attend, FAST leaders say. 

Cooley believes the sheriff has immense influence about what happens next. “He began the pre-arrest diversion program and he worked with all the chiefs in the county on the offenses that are allowed (in an effort) to get a consensus on the eligible offenses.”  

She added that Gualtieri has told FAST that he had approached Pinellas County police chiefs about a pre-arrest diversion program for traffic offenses, but some weren’t in favor of it. Cooley said the sheriff indicated he was seeking consensus on the issue. 

“He’s the most powerful person. We were disappointed, because he has just a phenomenal program with the juvenile diversion program,” she said.  

“It’s complex. It doesn’t fit neatly into doing community service to pay off your debts, but there are ways they can do that.”  

If the situation is complicated for law enforcement officials, it appears doubly so for those who get caught up in the system. 

Pastor William Sherman of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Clearwater was surprised to learn that his driver’s license had been suspended. Speaking by telephone earlier this week, he explained that he had given his old car to his son, handed him the title and canceled the insurance. 

“I didn’t know that I had to turn the license plate over to the DMV,” he said. 

Sherman didn’t discover that his license had been suspended until he tried to change his address on his drivers’ license. He said the clerk was helpful and gave him time to get the license plate from his son – who wasn’t driving the car because it needed repairs – and he was able to pay a processing fee to get his license reinstated. 

Still, the incident left the Liberian-born pastor a bit shaken. “I could have been stopped, not knowing that my license was suspended,” he said. “It was all providential.” 

Peggy Drizd was also stunned to learn that she was driving on a suspended license when a Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputy pulled her over on U.S. 19 in April. Her driver’s license had been suspended back on March 15, 2021, for lack of insurance, the deputy said. Further, records showed that the DMV had notified her by letter of the suspension. Drizd never got the letter. 

As she explained it this week, the officer asked three questions: Did you just buy your car? Has she recently moved? Did you change insurance companies?  

Drizd, who retired as principal of Curtis Fundamental Elementary School in Dunedin and is a member of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Safety Harbor, was bewildered. She told the deputy that she was the original owner of the car, has had it for five years, and has been living in the same Oldsmar home for 20 years. As for her insurance company, she’s had the same firm for more than 30 years and the policy has never lapsed. 

“I was like a deer in headlights. I said, ‘I pay them a lot of money for not being insured.’”  

She got a citation, but the deputy let her drive home. She called her insurance company, which confirmed that her policy had never lapsed and said they would reimburse her for any costs associated with the traffic stop. 

“They were very nice about it, but I’m still having to go to court. And I guess some people go to jail,” she said. 

“It was a mistake on somebody’s part … I’m still having to go to court – on July 5 – and who knows what they are going to do. It has disrupted my life, because I feel like a criminal. I will always have a misdemeanor on my record. I am embarrassed that it even happened.” 

The Rev. Noel Koestline, who is also retired, shared her story in person Thursday. “My husband died in January and my mail piled up as I planned two memorial services for him in two different states,” she said.  

She forgot to pay her car insurance, but by the time she rushed the payment in, the grace period had expired. She then learned that her car was no longer registered. Koestline recounted that she got new insurance and made an appointment to get the registration renewed. She had been borrowing friends’ cars in the meantime, but the day she had to go to Social Security to take care of her late husband’s death benefits, she was forced to drive her own. On the way home, she was stopped for going above the speed limit in a school zone. She was able to show the email confirmation of her appointment to get her registration reinstated and was let off with a stern warning. 

“I know that I was lucky and I know I could have been arrested. And sadly, I suspect that were I not an older white woman, more likely would have been arrested,” she said. “My story shows how easy it is for people to be blindsided by a license suspension and how difficult it can be to get your paper work on the right track.” 

 

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Carol Santure

    July 1, 2022at4:30 pm

    I tried to find out what FAST stood for because it was not mentioned in the excellent article.

    • Bill DeYoung

      Bill DeYoung

      July 1, 2022at4:49 pm

      Hi Carol:

      Thanks for reading! It stands for Faith and Action for Strength Together. It’s in the first sentence of the story.

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