Haven't we seen this scene before?

Published May 11, 2007

Criminal charges against the activist accused of disrupting a Largo public hearing and then violently resisting arrest have disappeared.

I'm shocked, I tell you. Shocked.

Police made the arrest; then prosecutors considered the evidence and decided they could not sell those charges to a jury.

It's easy to say this was all so predictable, since it was Nadine Smith and not me staring a serious felony and the possibility of jail time in the face.

Smith, uncharacteristically no-commenting until the charges went away, now has plenty to say about what happened that night. For starters, how about a public apology?

(Interestingly, Smith, executive director of the gay, lesbian and transgender advocacy group Equality Florida, has one other arrest in her past: a 20-year-old misdemeanor trespassing charge. Described in a 1987 news story as "a gentle, singing army of pacifists, " Smith and dozens of others were arrested at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station protesting the test launch of a Trident 2 nuclear missile. Also charged: famed baby doctor Benjamin Spock.)

What happened in Largo was something else entirely.

It was the first meeting to decide the fate of Steve Stanton, the city manager with plans for a sex change. The public event to decide if he would keep his job was so emotionally charged police were using metal detectors.

Smith, there to support Stanton, was asked by a man for an antidiscrimination flier she had. When a police officer told her not to hand it out, she asked why.

Police say there were rules against distributing fliers inside. But how did what could have been a conversation turn into an arrest?

As Sgt. Butch Ward took Smith out, she told people she was being arrested (either yelling or speaking calmly, depending on the witness). Smith describes her arm twisted painfully behind her back and says she was pushed against a wall and taken to the floor. Police said she resisted with violence. A Times photographer captured a shot of four officers over her while she lay facedown.

That night she went to jail. Today she's free and clear.

To be fair, police need only probable cause to make an arrest, while prosecutors have to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Maybe this was just an officer trying to deal with a seething meeting. But we First Amendment types get nervous when we've seen a scenario before: protester gets arrested and whisked off, then charges go away when the big event is but a memory.

Smith's take: "I believe this was an ugly act intended to intimidate people exercising our First Amendment rights by an officer who disagreed with our message."

Police: "Sgt. Ward's actions were appropriate based on the rules set forth by city administrators in terms of participant behavior during the hearing, " a spokesman said.

"We certainly understand and respect her opinion and her perception of what she believes happened that night, " Deputy Chief John Carroll said this week.

Fair to say a public apology does not appear to be on the horizon. I'd settle for an acknowledgment that this was a learning experience, a chance for a different sort of picture in the newspaper next time around.