The Sheriff and Ashley Mitchem
Bogus arrests aren't rare in Jacksonville — at least for those who don't happen to be TV reporters
When properly executed, the political fix is as mysterious as the movements of a conjuror's fingers. The marionettes may prance in full view upon the boards, but the hands that move their limbs and mouths are hidden in the shadows of a black velvet curtain. Before the media can glom onto the goings-on, the illusionist vanishes into the governmental gloom, then tiptoes out the stage door unheard and unseen.
Sheriff John Rutherford, a master of the bureaucratic arts, was uncharacteristically clumsy in his recent voiding of traffic tickets and a Notice to Appear issued to WJXT's Ashley Mitchem. First, the background: Mitchem is an on-air reporter for Channel 4. A beautiful, cheerful scofflaw, she regularly roared along First Coast thoroughfares at speeds prohibited to the lumpen law-abiding. Twice-warned, she was, on strike three, issued a traffic ticket and an NTA — a criminal summons — for the improper display of a Fraternal Order of Police decal, which is a misdemeanor most maleficent in our Sunshiny State.
The lady howled; the sheriff fixed. Usually, this would be a ho-hum exchange of favors among the media and political elite. This time, however, some emails leaked; the Times-Union clamped onto the story like a starving pitbull, and the sheriff, astoundingly, admitted to the fiddle in print.
This surprises. A more deft politician would have whispered a word to the state attorney and presiding judge and the entire matter would've been null-prossed into oblivion with nary a trace leading back to Police Memorial Building.
The moral drawn from this roadside episode was that a bullyboy cop had mistreated the lady, and the issuance of a criminal citation for a bumper decal was an outrage that cried to heaven itself for justice! No ordinary person, etc.
This conclusion is incorrect. The fraternal decal statute is one of those absurdities the Legislature routinely writes into law to pacify clamorous lobbies with no expectation that it will actually be used to stuff Florida's overflowing jails and prisons.
Jacksonville, however, has the highest arrest rate and harshest criminal sentences in the United States. When ordinary people are stopped here for trivial infractions, they are not, as was Mitchem, issued an NTA. They are often arrested, jailed and prosecuted on the first, not the third, offense.
They don't go home angry, like the heroine of this tale; they don't go home at all. They arrive in chains at 500 E. Liberty, there to drop trou, receive an ooey-gooey finger into cavities fore and aft, then don orange jumpsuit, white socks and flip-flops. If they arrive early enough, they'll dine on mystery meat in gravy, one veg and cornbread baked — weevils in, for extra vitamins.
Defense attorney Stephen Mosca told me he's representing one client arrested for walking on streets where there are sidewalks and another for riding a bicycle at night without a headlight. Attorney Dale Carson has defended clients jugged for failing to sign traffic tickets. He has a current client who was busted for picking up a bullet on a dirt road (three years mandatory minimum with a prior felony). Bail bondsmen I called said that defendants who are jailed for suspended licenses and unpaid tickets are their "bread and butter." I heard about one schlub who, while being processed for release after a short jolt for misdemeanor dope (a single doobie), was re-arrested when the roach tumbled out of his wallet!
Bullshit busts are not rare in this town. So, Miss Ashley, as your fury cools to a simmer, take a moment to pity the prisoners locked behind steel doors for riding a bike with no light. Most of them are black; most of them are poor. In Police Zone 1, where I live, it's a 20-mile, round-trip bike ride to Walmart — over a bridge and down the Philips Highway hell-zone — to get that light. It's not easy to pedal that far when you're broke, you're old and your knees are bad.
These inmates would weep for joy if cops gave them a ticket and an NTA. Instead, they get a ride Downtown and a stretch of indeterminate length, inside the belly of the beast,
Called Crime City.