Fifteen of the most chronic offenders downtown have racked up 876 arrests and more than $176,000 in fines and court costs that will most likely never be collected.
Only a handful of those arrests have resulted in jail sentences — a fact that is frustrating both police and prosecutors. And even when these criminals get away with a fine, they don’t pay it.
“The system is broken,” said Lt. Jeff Karr, of the Sarasota Police Department. “There has to be a sentence to fit the crime.”
‘Three hots and a cot’
According to Karr, the revolving door begins when the most chronic offenders, all of whom are transients, want to get cleaned up and fed.
“They call it three hots and a cot,” he said, referring to three hot meals and a bed in which to sleep. “They get arrested, so they’re able to get a shower, food and any medication they need. Then they get out, get drunk and messed up again.”
Their crimes range from minor offenses, such as open container, to more serious ones, such as resisting arrest and drug possession.
It’s Whitney Coyne’s job to prosecute those minor offenses, which make up the bulk of the arrests.
The assistant city attorney said he recommends a sentence for each offense, but it’s up to the judge’s discretion to decide what penalty to impose.
Judges Judy Goldman and David Denkin are most often assigned to these cases.
A lenient reputation?
In the halls of the police department, Goldman has a reputation for being lenient on many offenders, giving them fines and even allowing for payment plans to those who claim financial hardship. Even though many times the person receiving the fine or the payment plan has been offered the same plan in the past and has never paid.
Goldman, though, said that impression is misguided.
“When someone has done harm to or threatens someone else or there needs to be restitution, I’m not lenient,” said Goldman.
She said she considers those factors before imposing a sentence. The maximum sentence she can impose for minor offenses is 30 days. If a judge sees a suspect at his arraignment, he’s already spent 21 days in the county jail, so many times they’re sentenced to time served.
Goldman said she’s also under a lot of pressure to keep the jail free of minor offenders. Chief Judge Lee Haworth said the sheriff’s office and the county, which are faced with paying the jail’s bills, ask judges to carefully screen the people sentenced to jail, because the cost to the county to incarcerate these offenders is $75 to $80 a day.
“I think the judges are hesitant to put someone in jail for a minor offense,” said Coyne.
Haworth said it’s not only police and prosecutors who are frustrated with the current system.
“The judge’s frustration is when you get someone with 10 or 11 open-container violations and you have to let them back out on the street, you’re basically decriminalizing the law,” said Haworth. “You’re saying there is no punishment anymore.”
Opportunity to abuse the system
For Clinton Scott, who has 112 arrests downtown and has accumulated more than $19,000 in unpaid fines and court costs, Coyne now recommends a jail sentence each time Scott faces a judge.
But court records show that although Scott has appeared in the Sarasota County courthouse since 1996, he has yet to be sentenced to jail. (See box for details.)
“There’s got to be some deterrent,” said Coyne. “When you’re lenient on them, they view that as an opportunity to abuse the system.”
Many of the arrests are for open container and illegal lodging. Coyne said that’s because many of the most frequent offenders are alcoholics who can’t be rehabilitated.
Most of the time, they can’t sleep at the Salvation Army even if they wanted to, because it requires them to be sober.
“A lot of times they’re frustrated with me, because I recommend jail time for them,” said Coyne. “They don’t agree that what they’re doing should be against the law, especially on lodging.”
As for collecting unpaid fines and court costs, the court system has two tools at its disposal — a collection agency specializing in unpaid court fees and a new Sarasota County collections court.
Fine collection nearly impossible
The collection agency is really the law firm Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson, which has offices nationwide.
Kelly Burnette, a partner at the firm, said he goes after everyone who fails to pay his court costs, but admits that collecting from transients is nearly impossible.
The collections court allows underprivileged defendants set up payment plans to pay their court costs and fines. If they don’t pay, they’re ordered to appear in collections court. If they don’t show up in collections court, a warrant is issued for their arrest, and their driver’s license is suspended.
“Some people make an extraordinary effort to pay, because they want to keep their license,” said Goldman. “I cannot tell you how hard we try to collect court costs.”
The threat of being arrested and losing a driver’s license may scare most people straight — people who have jobs, need good credit and care about their reputations.
But, Coyne said the transients who are habitual offenders don’t have those same concerns.
Said Karr: “They never pay, but somehow they’re able to go buy their drugs and their alcohol. It’s past the point of being ridiculous.”
Downtown offenders who owe the most in court costs
Willie Bell, 49
Willie Bell’s 91 arrests include battery, disorderly intoxication, drug possession, illegal lodging, larceny, open container, public urination, resisting an officer and trespassing.
The dates of his court appearances span between February 1991 to September 2009.
Although he’s been arrested 91 times, he’s only been sentenced to jail twice: six months for a 1991 drug conviction and two months for a 2002 resisting an officer conviction.
Since that 2002 jail sentence, Bell has been faced a judge for crimes 60 more times and has received fines each time.
Frank Bowles, 50
Frank Bowles’ 40 arrests include battery, disorderly intoxication, drug possession, illegal lodging, larceny, open container, public urination, resisting an officer and trespassing.
The dates of his court appearances span from March 2003 to March 2009.
Although he’s been arrested 40 times, he’s only been sentenced to jail once: three months for a 2003 larceny conviction.
Clinton Scott, 50
Clinton Scott’s 112 arrests include aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, burglary, disorderly intoxication, driving with a suspended license, driving with a revoked license, larceny, open container, panhandling, retail theft, soliciting funds and trespassing.
The dates of his court appearances span from December 1996 to September 2009.
Although he’s been arrested 112 times, he has not been sentenced to jail.
Keith Brogan, 41
Keith Brogan’s 53 arrests include battery, disorderly intoxication, drug possession, illegal lodging, larceny, open container, prostitution, public urination, resisting an officer, robbery with a weapon, solicitation, theft and trespassing.
The dates of his court appearances span from May 2002 to September 2009.
Although he’s been arrested 53 times, he’s only been sentenced to jail once: 30 days for a 2007 resisting an officer conviction, but he was given time served.
Since that jail sentence, Brogan has faced a judge for crimes 30 more times and has received fines each time.
ï»¿ï»¿Bernard Patrick, 47
Bernard Patrick’s 62 arrests include carrying a concealed weapon, curbside drinking, disorderly intoxication, drug possession, illegal lodging, open container, public urination, and trespassing.
The dates of his court appearances span from May 2006 to September 2009.
Although he’s been arrested 62 times, he’s only been sentenced to jail once: 90 days for a 2008 drug possession conviction.
Since that jail sentence, Brogan has faced a judge for crimes 25 more times and has received fines each time.