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Victim of rape sent to jail on warrants

The public defender says there was an alternative to hauling the woman off to jail.

By LEANORA MINAI

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 22, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The way the St. Petersburg Police Department sees it, officers had no choice but to arrest a rape victim.

The 29-year-old woman had three outstanding arrest warrants, one for violating probation for driving drunk.

But the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender says there was an alternative to hauling the woman to jail hours after she was attacked on a public street: Officers could have called an on-duty judge.

"You really feel sorry for the woman to go through a traumatic event and then end up in jail," said Bob Dillinger, the public defender.

The June 4 arrest has victims' advocates worried that people will not report crimes if they have unresolved criminal charges. It also highlights the discretionary nature of a police officer's job.

"I think that we, as a community, are working to improve things and maybe this highlights a systemic issue we need to look at," said Lisa Signorelli, who runs the rape crisis program at Family Service Centers in Clearwater.

Sgt. Katy Connor-Dubina, who supervises the department's personal violence unit, said her officers could have been held responsible if something bad happened if the woman was released.

"What if this woman had decided to get behind the wheel of a car and killed a family coming home from church one morning?" Connor-Dubina asked.

Police came into contact with the woman at 12:15 a.m. June 4 when she went to a fire station in St. Petersburg to report that she had been raped.

The woman, whose name is not being published to protect her identity, had been drinking with her boyfriend, police said. They were driving to Gulfport when they got into a fight. She demanded to be let out of the car.

She told investigators she was walking on 49th Street, between Central Avenue and Ninth Avenue N, when the attacker surprised her from behind and knocking her to the ground. He tore her clothes from her body, raped her in the bushes and tried to strangle her with a thin cord. The rapist ran away after the assault. No arrest has been made.

The woman, in relaying the account to Detective Denise Schmidt, provided a phony name and date of birth for herself.

After checking records, Schmidt discovered the woman's true identity and the three outstanding arrest warrants on misdemeanor criminal charges.

Police Chief Goliath Davis III said officers "made every attempt" to show empathy. "Police officers have discretion, however, that discretion is limited when dealing with court orders," Davis said.

The woman was taken into custody after a medical exam that day and was booked in the Pinellas County Jail, where she stayed three nights.

Dillinger said the detective could have called the state attorney who was on call 24 hours. The state attorney could have then contacted the duty judge, he said.

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