Father in gun case sentenced

Englewood Sun (FL) – Saturday, June 15, 2013

SUN PHOTO BY MERAB-MICHAL FAVORITE Chris Davis hugs the friends and family that wrote character letters on his behalf and came out to support him on Friday. His attorney, Russell Kirshy, can be seen in the background.

Chris Davis hugs the friends and family that wrote character letters on his behalf and came out to support him on Friday. His attorney, Russell Kirshy, can be seen in the background.

PUNTA GORDA — More than a dozen people, occupying about half the courtroom at the Charlotte County Justice Center, held one another close and wiped tears from their eyes Friday as they awaited the sentence of the father of a 2-year-old boy who shot and killed himself with an unsecured firearm in November.

Christopher C. Davis, 24, of Port Charlotte, scrubbed his own tears away as he pleaded no contest to culpable negligence, a third-degree felony, for leaving his Glock .40-caliber handgun unsecured in his closet.

His son, Christopher Eli Davis, grabbed it and accidentally shot himself.

Nearly everyone present in court teared up when 20th Circuit Judge Amy Hawthorne withheld adjudication and sentenced Davis to two years of probation and 50 hours of community service, with the stipulation that Davis would spend his time teaching others about child and gun safety.

Davis also must forfeit the firearm to the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office, pay court costs, and donate to a children’s advocacy group.

Withholding adjudication means there will be no finding of guilt in the case, provided Davis complies with all of the conditions of his sentence.

‘The public-speaking aspect is going to be hard for him,’ said Jessica Vets, Davis’ first cousin, who acted as a spokeswoman for the family. ‘It will mean that he has to relive that night over and over again, but if it saves even one child, then it is worth it.’

Davis and other family members declined to comment Friday.

At about 3 a.m. Nov. 18, 2012, the Sheriff’s Office responded to Davis’ then-home on the 21300 block of Hubbard Avenue in Port Charlotte. Deputies were responding to a medical call related to a small boy who was not breathing and reportedly had blood on him.

When the deputies arrived, the child’s mother, Lisset Elias, 23, was standing in the driveway with the child wrapped in a blanket, according to a sheriff’s report. The child, Christopher Eli, did not have a pulse, and was taken to Peace River Regional Medical Center in Port Charlotte, where he was pronounced dead. He was just shy of his 3rd birthday.

The elder Davis’ arrest came Jan. 24. He cooperated fully with authorities and had been released on his own recognizance after his booking, the Sun previously reported.

Russell Kirshy, Davis’ defense attorney, told the judge that Davis and his son shared a ‘special bond’ and were ‘inseparable.’

‘They looked alike, they acted alike, and they did everything together,’ he told the judge.

Kirshy said Davis relied on him to review all the evidence because he was too emotional to view it.

Hawthorne said she had received numerous letters from family and friends of Davis asking her to consider the plea deal, which did not include jail time for Davis. Attorneys for both sides agreed on the deal in May.

Kirshy said Davis was a devoted father and worked hard to be the primary provider for the family so Elias, now his fiancee, could stay home and care for their child.

‘Sometimes things of this nature can tear a couple apart,’ Vets said of the incident. ‘But since the tragedy, they have grown closer together.’

Hawthorne asked Elias, who is pregnant, if the sentence was what she wanted. Elias nodded yes from across the courtroom. Vets said the couple are expecting a baby girl in September.

Vets said the family was more than relieved when they heard Hawthorne’s ruling.

‘Chris will spend the rest of his life asking himself ‘what if,’ and that is a life sentence in itself,’ Vets said.

Jail deaths draw attention

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Sunday, June 16, 2013

PUNTA GORDA — An inmate at the Charlotte County Jail has come forward with accusations of mistreatment by jail authorities in connection with the death of a jailed homeless man.

The death occurred the morning of June 9 at the facility, while the homeless man was strapped to a ‘restraining chair.’

Prior to his death, Thomas Robert Andreasen, 48, may have been sprayed with a chemical agent before being put in the chair and left for hours without a shower to wash off the chemicals, despite complaints that he ‘was burning,’ according to a letter written by inmate Damien Deleon Jones, a 34-year-old Fort Myers resident who has been incarcerated since April 12.

The letter states Jones was just a few cells down when the death occurred. He wrote a detailed account of the events leading to Andreasen’s death.

Andreasen, who had been arrested on a panhandling charge, was found unresponsive in his cell around 10 a.m., according to the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office. The cause of death is currently under investigation, according to sheriff’s spokeswoman Debbie Bowe.

Andreasen was the second inmate to die at the jail in less than two weeks. On May 29, Victor Hope Akers, 56, of Port Charlotte, was found dead after authorities said he dove headfirst off the second floor of a housing pod, according to a report. His death also remains under investigation, Bowe said.

Jones said Andreasen was placed in the chair because he was acting erratically due to going through detox.

Bowe confirmed that both Jones and Andreasen were confined in a section of the jail for inmates with medical issues at the time of Andreasen’s death.

Jones, a registered sex offender, is being held on charges of possession of cocaine, giving false identification to a law officer, possession of a weapon by a violent career offender, possession of drug paraphernalia and driving while license is suspended or revoked. During his time at the jail, he also has been charged with battery by a prison or jail detainee. Following that latest charge, he is being held without bond.

Capt. Norman A. Wilson, assistant jail commander, said that it is common practice for corrections officers to use a chemical agent on inmates when they become too unruly to be restrained safely. He said officers try to allow the inmates to shower as soon as they are sprayed, but often they can’t get them to settle down enough to remove them from the chair and get them into the shower.

‘It comes down to the safety of the officer,’ Wilson said. ‘People who are placed in the chair are going through a personal crisis; they are mentally unstable and they are out of control.’

Sometimes that means using a Taser to subdue them, Wilson said, and in some cases, those inmates are fitted with a ‘spit mask,’ or a mesh mouth cover that is not intrusive to breathing, to prevent them from spitting. After they are restrained, a nurse does a physical inspection and they are ‘cared for continuously’ until they have settled down enough to be removed from restraints.

Wilson said he wishes the county had a more humane way to allow the inmates to ‘hash it out,’ like a padded room where they could be placed until they settled down.

Despite its reputation, restraining-chair treatment is commonplace in state correctional facilities.

In February the family of an Ohio man settled in court with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office after Nick Christie, then 62, died in jail in 2009 from circumstances similar to the ones in the Andreasen case, according to a WINK News report.

The lawsuit alleged individual deputies and nurses at the Lee County Jail were guilty of assault and battery, the use of excessive force, and deliberate indifference to Christie’s medical condition when they strapped him naked to a restraining chair, fitted him with a spit mask and used pepper spray on him more than a dozen times, WINK reported.

While CCSO authorities declined to comment on whether Andreasen had been sprayed or masked, as his death is an open investigation, Sheriff Bill Prummell said he has no plans to change any jail procedural policies until the investigation is complete.

‘I don’t want to jump to any conclusions …,’ Prummell said. ‘(The chair) is not meant to punish anyone; it’s just meant to control them to keep them from hurting themselves, as well as my deputies.’

Fallen corrections officer remembered

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Thursday, June 13, 2013

SUN PHOTO BY MERAB-MICHAL FAVORITE Col. Darryl Collins, chief of security at the Charlotte Correctional Institution, and other deputies from across the county took a few moments Tuesday evening to remember Darla Lathrem, a corrections officer who was killed in 2003.

Col. Darryl Collins, chief of security at the Charlotte Correctional Institution, and other deputies from across the county took a few moments Tuesday evening to remember Darla Lathrem, a corrections officer who was killed in 2003.

PUNTA GORDA — Lightning struck all around the perimeter of Charlotte Correctional Institution Tuesday evening. There was no lapse in time before the thunder arrived. The storm was already there.

Thunder roared as Gerald Burns, a former corrections officer at the facility, related the horrific murder scene he witnessed at the prison a decade ago.

‘I saw something that night that I hope none of the rest of you will never see,’ Burns said. ‘Something I will take with me to my grave. I feel like it happened yesterday.’

Burns was speaking at a memorial service for Darla Lathrem, a corrections officer who was just 38 years old when she was murdered at the Charlotte County prison on June 11, 2003. Each year, the prison holds a memorial service on the anniversary of her death.

Rain began pouring down when Nancy Behrens, another former corrections officer on duty at the time of Lathrem’s death, came forward to speak about her co-worker. Behrens said she will never be the same after what she saw that night. Her face was soaked with rain and tears as she spoke.

‘I’ve never seen anything so horrible in my life,’ she choked. ‘They didn’t have to do that to her; they didn’t have to take it that far.’

Lathrem was supervising five inmates on a construction detail inside the facility when she and inmate Charles Fuston were attacked and killed during a botched escape attempt by three inmates, Dwight Eaglin, Stephen Smith and Michael Jones. Eaglin and Smith are now on death row. Jones took a plea deal in exchange for life in prison, and later died while incarcerated.

The dozens of people in attendance Tuesday could barely hear Lathrem’s father, David Lathrem, a Baptist minister, over the rumble of the thunder as he delivered an invocation.

Darla Lathrem was the first officer to be killed at CCI, and the first female correctional officer killed in Florida.

Burns said he made a promise to David the day after Darla’s murder: He would make sure a memorial was put in front of the prison in her honor.

That memorial, a marble bench with Darla’s name engraved on it, was covered in fresh flowers, and someone had placed a rosary and a cross on it. All the items were soaked with rain during the ceremony.

While the droplets poured, no officer in attendance made a move for shelter. They just stood there, soaked to the bone, while honoring their fallen friend.

Richard Johnson, assistant warden at the prison, apologized to guests for the weather. Darla’s family, however, seemed to see the stormy weather as a good omen.

‘It was like this the night she died,’ Lindsay Best, Darla’s older sister, said. ‘I remember because lightning was dancing across the sky, just like tonight.’

Best said she took it as a sign her younger sister was looking down on the remembrance.

‘You know she really loved her job,’ Best said. ‘She loved the prisoners, called them by their names instead of by their numbers, and she felt sorry for them.’

Darla’s other sister, Carol Miller, said their mother tried to convince Darla that she shouldn’t take the position, but Darla didn’t listen.

‘She had a great work ethic,’ Miller said. ‘She really enjoyed working there.’

Miller said inmates at the prison called Darla, who stood at 6 feet, 3 inches tall, ‘The Gentle Giant.’

‘You know, even after she was killed, they would ask for her and ask where she was,’ Miller said.

All of Darla’s family seemed to be in good spirits during the event.

‘It still hurts,’ David said. ‘I think about her every day, but I know she is in a better place. It seems like she is talking to us from up there tonight.’

Convicted rapist sentenced to life

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Thursday, June 13, 2013



PUNTA GORDA — The Fleming Island, Fla., man found guilty in April of raping an 11-year-old girl was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday at the Charlotte County Justice Center.

Twentieth Circuit Judge George Richards sentenced Christopher Maurice Roberts, 37, to a mandatory term of two life sentences — one for each count of sexual battery on a victim younger than 12 — plus 15 years in prison for the charges of lewd or lascivious battery on a victim younger than 16 and lewd or lascivious exhibition. All of his sentences are concurrent.

Roberts maintained his innocence prior to the sentencing, painting himself as a family man.

‘I’m not a sexual predator,’ Roberts said. ‘I’m not a monster. That’s not me.’

During his trial, Roberts claimed the charges were a case of mistaken identity by the victim, who told authorities she walking to a gas station to buy a soda when Roberts offered her a ride. He then took her to a home in Port Charlotte where both he and his father — Christopher James Roberts, 54, of Jacksonville — allegedly committed sex acts with her.

During the trial, the victim testified that the younger Roberts had propositioned her to work as a prostitute.

The elder Roberts has not gone to trial yet on his one charge of sexual battery on a victim younger than 12. His next court appearance is scheduled for Aug. 15.

In addition to prison time, Richards said the younger Roberts is barred from contacting the victim, and will have to register as a sexual predator and pay court costs.

The defendant’s attorney, Steven Burch, said he filed a written appeal in the case Wednesday.

The younger Roberts has several charges pending against him from two other cases, including living off the earnings of a prostitute, driving with a suspended license, possession of drug paraphernalia and two counts of possession of a controlled substance.

Richards told Burch and prosecutor Stephanie Powers that he wants to see the other cases resolved as soon as possible, before the younger Roberts is transferred from the Charlotte County Jail to a state prison facility.

Inmate dies in Charlotte County Jail

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Tuesday, June 11, 2013



PUNTA GORDA — Authorities are investigating the second inmate death at the Charlotte County Jail in less than two weeks.

Thomas Robert Andreasen, 48, a homeless man who had been arrested on a panhandling charge, was found unresponsive in his cell Sunday morning, according to the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office. Medical personnel performed CPR, but he was pronounced dead at the scene, authorities said.

Andreasen was housed in a pod for inmates with medical issues, according to CCSO spokeswoman Debbie Bowe. Andreasen suffered from a medical condition prior to his arrest Wednesday, but Bowe said she couldn’t disclose its nature due to patient confidentiality laws.

At the time of his death, Andreasen had been strapped to a ‘restraining chair,’ a device specifically designed for violent inmates to keep them from injuring themselves or others, according to Bowe.

Andreasen was confined to the chair after he became unruly around 4 a.m. and would not calm down, a report states. Bowe said jail personnel checked on Andreasen ‘every few minutes’ and he appeared to be in satisfactory condition until shortly after 10 a.m., when he was found to be unresponsive.

The Sheriff’s Office Major Crimes Unit is investigating, which is standard procedure for any death at the jail, Bowe said. The result of the investigation is pending an autopsy by the Charlotte County Medical Examiner’s Office.

‘Both deaths were very tragic,’ Sheriff Bill Prummell said in a statement. ‘Anytime we have a death in the jail, we take it very seriously and do everything in our power to make sure individuals in our custody remain safe and protected. I have the utmost confidence in my staff and the care and custody of our inmate population.’

Andreasen is the second inmate who died at the Charlotte County Jail in less than two weeks.

On May 29, Victor Hope Akers, 56, of Port Charlotte, was found dead after he dove head-first off the second floor of a housing pod, according to a report. Bowe said Monday that the pod is open for inmates to walk around unless they are on lockdown. Akers was being held at the jail on charges of battery and violation of probation. His death is still an open investigation, Bowe said.

Andreasen was arrested last week after authorities say he violated a county ordinance by panhandling near a road. He was being held at the jail on $250 bond.

According to a report, Andreasen was standing in the roadway outside the Publix shopping center on Cochran Boulevard, holding a sign that read, ‘Is What It Is, Homeless Dude Needs Food’ on one side and ‘Need Job Anything Helps’ on the other side.

Andreasen admitted to deputies that he knew it was illegal to stand next to the roadways and impede the flow of traffic by asking people for cash, a report stated.

Two arrested in exposure sting

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Friday, May 31, 2013

PORT CHARLOTTE — Two men were arrested Wednesday after detectives caught them ‘hanging out’ in a local park , according to a Charlotte County Sheriff’s report.

However Jonathan Lowell Porter, 63, of the 1100 block of Kenwood Avenue, and Paul Alan Schaffer, 65, of the 20100 block of Helms Way — both of Port Charlotte — weren’t concerned with watching the sunset. They both were charged with exposure of sexual organs at Kiwanis Park during an undercover sting, the report states.

CCSO detectives conducted an undercover operation in both Kiwanis Park on Donora Street and Sunrise Park on Edgewater Drive, in response to several complaints from residents, who reported people were participating in illegal sexual activity in both parks , the report states.

An undercover detective first saw Porter at Sunrise Park around 5 p.m. The two made small talk before the detective left and drove to Kiwanis Park . Porter showed up at Kiwanis Park about 30 minutes later, where he again engaged the undercover detective in casual conversation.

Schaffer then arrived at Kiwanis Park on his bicycle. He immediately rode up to the CCSO detective and Porter and began to rub his genitals on the outside of his pants, the report states. Schaffer told the detective of a secluded area in the woods, then led the detective into a wooded area, where he allegedly pulled out his genitals and started masturbating within the sight of other people in the park , including a woman and two small children.

Before detectives could move in and make an arrest, Porter joined in, the report states.

Both men were arrested Wednesday and taken to Charlotte County Jail. Both were released after posting $1,000 bond the next day.

Pilot cat program takes off

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Monday, June 10, 2013

SUN PHOTO BY MERAB-MICHAL FAVORITE Caroline Resnick, a volunteer for Community Cats of Charlotte, helps make the feral felines that just got out of surgery a little more comfortable during a neutering clinic at the Pampered Pet Health Center in Port Charlotte on Sunday.

Caroline Resnick, a volunteer for Community Cats of Charlotte, helps make the feral felines that just got out of surgery a little more comfortable during a neutering clinic at the Pampered Pet Health Center in Port Charlotte on Sunday.

PORT CHARLOTTE — Diana Santi, 66, of Punta Gorda, has been an animal lover since she was a little girl, a characteristic that followed her into adulthood.

When Hurricane Charley hit in 2004, she adopted an abandoned dog that had been roaming the streets. Then, over the last few years, she began feeding stray cats around her neighborhood. However, the feral felines kept breeding, becoming more of a financial burden.

‘Everyone always tells them to ‘shoo’ and turns them away,’ Santi said, ‘I didn’t have the heart for that. But they wouldn’t stop having kittens and I got in way over my head.’

Santi, who was suffering from cancer and dealing with medical bills, couldn’t afford to have the cats fixed. Yet every evening more and more cats would appear at her doorstep, meowing and purring for dinner.

Santi was at a loss until she heard about Community Cats of Charlotte, an organization dedicated to reducing the number of feral and free-roaming cats throughout the county. The cats are spayed or neutered and vaccinated so they can continue a healthy existence in the wild without multiplying.

On Sunday, the last of Santi’s 10 cats were neutered, at no cost, during a pilot program that traps and treats feral cats on a monthly basis.

About 36 predominately female, free-roaming cats underwent surgery at the Pampered Pet Health Center in Port Charlotte. Dr. Anita Holt, who owns the clinic, and other local veterinarians volunteered to perform the procedures, which included three-year rabies and distemper shots.

After being treated, the cats ‘ ears were clipped so people would know they had received their shots, and they were released back into the wild.

Feral cats can’t be taken into a shelter,’ said Bob Starr, a former Charlotte County commissioner who funded the launch of the program by donating nearly $3,000 to the cause. ‘They are not adoptable; they’re too wild and crazy. This way they can live out their days in the wild, but the nuisance behavior and the explosive population growth stops.’

Starr theorizes that once the ferals are released, the cat population will stabilize and decrease over time. The Community Cats of Charlotte organization keeps a watchful eye over their former feline patients by assigning a volunteer caregiver to feed and manage each of the feral cat colonies located throughout the county.

‘The community has embraced this program because no harm comes to the cats ,’ said Janet Gould, president of Community Cats of Charlotte. ‘The only way to effectively address the problem is to offer a life-saving program like this one.’

Dr. Ronald Lott, a volunteer veterinarian at the clinic, said that treating the cats is an issue of public health. According to Lott, there were over 104 cases of rabies last year in Florida.

‘The disease is passed primarily through raccoons and bats,’ he said. ‘This way domestic animals aren’t exposed.’

In May, Port Charlotte was put on a rabies alert after a dog had been exposed to a bat that tested positive for the rabies virus in Charlotte County.

While doctors and animal control specialists address the well-being of local residents and their pets, Santi is happy her burden has been lifted.

‘I just hope that the word spreads about this wonderful program,’ she said. ‘Euthanization is not the answer, neutering and spaying is.’

Fresh face on crime scene

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Saturday, June 8, 2013

SUN PHOTO BY MERAB-MICHAL FAVORITE Ashley Handley, 22, is the first new crime scene investigator the Punta Gorda Police Department has seen in nearly two decades. He predecessor, Pat Anthony, retired in March.

Ashley Handley, 22, is the first new crime scene investigator the Punta Gorda Police Department has seen in nearly two decades. He predecessor, Pat Anthony, retired in March.

PUNTA GORDA — For the first time in more than 18 years, the Punta Gorda Police Department has a new crime scene investigator.

Ashley Handley, 22, of Punta Gorda, is young, she’s fun, and she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. (Her predecessor, Pat Anthony, retired March 1.)

‘Ashley has a fresh , new, energetic approach and the initiative and motivation to light up a room,’ said Punta Gorda Police Chief Albert ‘Butch’ Arenal. ‘ Crime scene investigation is one of the areas in the department we have been wanting to take in a new direction, and she is just the person to do it.’

While the job sometimes can require assessing gruesome scenes and blood-soaked evidence, Handley seems like the perfect person to stomach it. She has been an avid hunter since she was 10.

‘I’m daddy’s little boy,’ she joked.

Handley adores all things outdoors. As an only child, it was common for Handley to accompany her father on hunting and fishing trips. But don’t think it was dad who did all the dirty work.

‘I can gut and field dress a hog in 15 minutes,’ Handley said. ‘I am very proud of that.’

While her dad taught her the basics of hunting, working as a butcher at Publix helped her become an expert at filleting fish. However it was her experience taking classes at Edison State College Charlotte Campus in Punta Gorda that got her interested in law enforcement. Also, her mother Allison Handley is a clerk with the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office.

Growing up, Handley always enjoyed watching John Walsh host ‘America’s Most Wanted’ and sitting through the show ‘To Catch a Predator.’ That intrigue inspired her to take some electives in criminology and law while pursuing a nursing degree.

‘I found myself doing better and putting more time into my electives,’ she said. ‘I was grasping all the legal concepts and having so much fun that I decided to change my major.’

After getting her associate degree, Handley applied for the CSI position on her 22nd birthday. On April Fool’s Day, she received the job offer. She started April 22, the anniversary of her grandmother’s death.

‘I thought it was a good omen,’ Handley said. ‘It seemed like she was sending me a sign.’

Handley still was pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Edison State when she applied for the PGPD position.

‘Initially, we thought she was kind of young for the position,’ Arenal said. ‘But by the time the interview was over, she had simply bowled us over with her talents.’

Handley isn’t the type to let skepticism hinder her drive. She maintained a place on the dean’s list while attending Charlotte High School and Edison, and was part of the National Honor Society while studying at Florida Gulf Coast University.

‘She is a very serious girl,’ Jack Handley, Ashley’s father, said. ‘I never worry about her. She knows her surroundings everywhere she goes, a trait I taught her because she was an only child and not one to spare.’

Recently, her skill set was put to the test when she processed the entire crime scene at St. Andrew’s South Golf Club after six people vandalized the course. Ashley’s smile was even brighter when she was covered in black fingerprinting dust after lifting readable prints off the golf carts that were taken.

All the suspects were arrested and charged with burglary, grand theft and criminal mischief after authorities said they took the carts and destroyed portions of the 18th fairway and green, the irrigation system and the fiberglass carts.

‘It was my first big, extensive investigation,’ Ashley said. ‘It was great.’

Ashley has only three more classes until she graduates with her bachelor’s degree, then she plans to become the sixth certified female police officer on the PGPD force.

‘I’m excited to be the new face of crime scene investigation,’ she said.

Keeping watchful eye on Parkside

Englewood Sun (FL) – Friday, May 31, 2013

PORT CHARLOTTE — In the eyes of a 7-year-old, a neighborhood is only as good as the playground equipment at the community park and the teachers in the local school.

Dannielle Crowley used to live in Englewood, but she said she prefers her new community of Parkside , a Port Charlotte district defined by the borders of U.S. 41, Midway Boulevard and the Fordham Waterway.

Dannielle likes spending time in McGuire Park and attending her new school, Neil Armstrong Elementary.

But while Dannielle frolics in the sand and plays on the equipment at McGuire, her father Dan Crowley is concerned for her safety. He knows the community is plagued by crime, especially burglaries and thefts.

‘We have never had a problem with safety around here,’ Dan said Thursday. ‘But I’m aware that it’s an issue.’

He was glad when he noticed the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office mobile command bus stop in the McGuire Park parking lot. Every morning, at least 16 CCSO officials show up for roll call, then scatter about the Parkside community, each combating crime from a different approach.

‘The county is investing a lot in attempts to revitalize the Parkside community,’ Sheriff Bill Prummell said in a press release. ‘We will only be able to accomplish this if we address the crime and quality-of-life issues within.’

The CCSO has increased its presence as part of a special, 17-day operation dubbed Operation Parkside . It’s designed to address problems with infractions. The street crimes, traffic and patrol units are targeting drug activity, while juvenile units are making sure youths on probation are complying with their curfews, according to CCSO Lt. Brian Harrison.

According to Harrison, authorities had issued 10 criminal citations, made 30 arrests and issued 91 traffic citations since the project began May 24, through Thursday morning.

‘Some people think they have taken it too far,’ Dan said. ‘But I think it’s a good thing — especially the juvenile checks. It keeps the kids out of trouble while they are out of school.’

Harrison said since the CCSO increased its presence, the amount of burglaries and thefts has been cut in half.

‘Normally, there will be about 15 to 20 thefts and burglaries in this area just over the weekend,’ he said. ‘Once people realize we are here, we expect that number to improve even more.’

While the land units are patrolling the streets, marine and dive units are making sure the local waterways are also safe.

‘They are clearing the waterways so it’s safe for boaters and fishermen,’ Harrison said. ‘We have been pulling up debris. We even pulled up an old car.’

In addition, Harrison said, school resource officers are going to area preschools and educating children about the perils of talking to strangers and communicating with unknown people online.

CCSO deputies also are fielding complaints from residents, according to sheriff’s spokeswoman Debbie Bowe. She said the CCSO has handled more than 97 grievances from concerned citizens.

The project will conclude June 8 at McGuire Park, with a free community event scheduled that day that is designed to raise awareness of the services the Sheriff’s Office provides. Residents are encouraged to come out from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and meet members of the traffic unit, the mounted patrol, the marine unit, the SWAT team, the K-9 unit and the dive team. There also will be a bounce house and games for kids.

The local word on texting ban

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Thursday, May 30, 2013

SUN PHOTO ILLUSTRATION Local authorities are trying to educate the public on a  new law will go into effect October 1, which puts a state-wide ban on texting while driving.

Local authorities are trying to educate the public on a new law will go into effect October 1, which puts a state-wide ban on texting while driving.

PORT CHARLOTTE — Brandon Staack, 24, uses his smartphone for everything. When he’s not texting, his GPS helps him find his way around town, and he often sorts through his extensive iTunes music selection at the same time.

‘I’m usually just trying to decide what I want to listen to, but then my wife yells at me for not paying attention to the road,’ he said.

Staack knows it’s not a good idea to multitask while he’s driving, but with all that technology at his fingertips, it’s hard to resist.

‘Sometimes I’ll be texting and I won’t remember the length of road I just traveled,’ he admitted. ‘I think I’m being careful and I try to look up every few seconds, but the reality is when you are texting, you are focused more on your phone than you are on whatever else you are doing.’

On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a statewide ban on texting while driving, which will go into effect Oct. 1.

The law makes it a secondary offense to read or send a text, email or instant message on an electronic device while a vehicle is in motion. That means law enforcement officers will have to first pull a driver over for another offense, like swerving or not wearing a seat belt, before the officer can issue a ticket.

‘Having it as a secondary offense puts police officers in an unfair position,’ said Punta Gorda Police Chief Albert ‘Butch’ Arenal. ‘Even if it’s completely evident that a driver is texting and not paying attention, my officers are going to have to look for a pretextual reason to pull them over.’

The bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said the bill is comparable with the seatbelt law, which began as a secondary offense but is now a primary offense.

‘We just want to change people’s behavior,’ she said. ‘It worked with the seatbelt law, now we are hoping it works for texting.’

Critics anticipate that officers will have a tough time determining whether a person is reading a text or just using GPS to find an address.

‘If your phone is in your hand and your head is down, then police have every right to assume you were texting,’ Detert said.

However, Detert pointed out the House added a provision to the bill that prevents the access of phone records without a search warrant unless the driver’s offense results in a crash or personal injury.

‘If someone wanted to fight a ticket, they could just bring their phone records to court to prove that they weren’t texting,’ she said.

Arenal isn’t discouraged by the search warrant provision.

‘I think it was the right decision because there is so much personal information stored in phones these days,’ he said, adding that if a law enforcement agency establishes probable cause it can legally retrieve phone records. ‘The good thing is that the justice system is keeping up with criminal technology, and now they have the ability to deliver search warrants electronically.’

Both the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office and the Punta Gorda Police Department anticipate a lot of promotion before the bill takes effect in October.

‘Right now, we are going to be focusing on educating the public about this new law,’ said Debbie Bowe, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office. ‘During that period, we will also be determining enforcement practices.’

Despite the efforts of lawmakers and authorities, Staack doesn’t think drivers will text any less.

‘It won’t change anything,’ he said. ‘Instead of people becoming more aware of the dangers of texting, they will instead become more aware of who is watching. It’s like when you see a patrol car in your rearview and you hurry up and put on your seat belt.’