Watering cases flood into courts
By LISA GREENE
© St. Petersburg Times,
The defendant presented his evidence and pleaded his case to the judge.
He didn't mean to do it, he said. It was all a mistake.
In other Pinellas courtrooms, a jury was weighing the fate of an accused killer and judges were deciding which convicts should go to prison for violating probation.
But in Courtroom 14, the accused awaited a different decision.
Dr. Donald Auerbach was charged as a water bandit.
His sprinkler ran when it wasn't supposed to.
Auerbach is one of thousands of Pinellas County residents cited for water violations this year. Their numbers have multiplied as local officials have cracked down on illegal watering.
In April, the county more than doubled the amount of its first-time fines, from $60 to $131. Repeat offenders must pay more. Now that the county has increased the fine amount, county lawyers expect to see more accused violators in Auerbach's spot: fighting the citation.
Don Crowell, the assistant county attorney leading the county's water prosecution efforts, said he's already seeing an increase in the citations coming to court.
"I just signed about 100 of them today," he said.
Every Friday, water violators congregate in Courtroom 14 for "Love Court" -- as in LOV, or local ordinance violations. They're joined by people cited for underage smoking, boating too fast and violating other local laws.
Today, the calendar for defendants making their first appearances there will be twice its usual length, 132 pages instead of 65 to 70, Crowell said. The calendar contains cases filed in April, when the higher fines first took effect, he said.
"Part of the goal in raising the fine was to make people sit up and take notice," Crowell said. "I think a collateral effect will be that they are more inclined to contest them."
Auerbach, a St. Petersburg family practitioner, said the case was his first time in court as a defendant.
When he came to court last week, Auerbach brought no lawyer and didn't exactly make an impassioned argument for his cause. During a 10-minute trial, he told the judge that a power surge reset his sprinkler.
He said his main purpose was not to have the citation dropped but to make sure county officials knew he wasn't trying to water too often. Auerbach brought photos of his home, near Largo, to show that "I'm not about to have the greenest lawn in town."
Pinellas County Judge Karl Grube quickly found him guilty, saying that as long as the watering occurs at the wrong time, it doesn't matter who's at fault. But Auerbach left feeling satisfied.
"Water is a precious resource in Pinellas County," he said. "I just came as a matter of record."
Safety Harbor resident Steven Schwersky hopes for better success. He appeared in court last week to ask for a trial, which is scheduled in July.
He received two citations for watering on the wrong day, early in the morning Wednesday. Schwersky said that because the sprinkler was going off while he was asleep, he didn't know he was watering at the wrong time. And he didn't get the first citation until after the second violation was issued.
"It's almost not worth my time," he said. "It's the principle. . . . I agree wholeheartedly with the law, but they should come look at my lawn. They'll see I'm watering once a week."
But Scherwsky will need luck on his side. So far this year, Pinellas has disposed of 41 court cases. The score: 25 dismissed or not guilty, 385 guilty.
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