By Kimberly C. Moore, LKLD Now

Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz stood in front of about a 1,000 members of the Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment (PEACE) this week and pledged to urge Lakeland Police officers to make more use of a pre-arrest diversion program that already exists in Polk County.

However, Mutz noted that the program was created by state law and only the Legislature can expand the list of offenses that qualify.

“One of the tools that we have is unconditional love and unconditional love seeks to find the things that are missing, the policies that we have or even in the actions of things that are already established,” Mutz told the crowd at Resurrection Catholic Church. “Just in this last week, in speaking with our chief on this particular issue, unsolicited by me but in reaction to the conversation. He went and made sure he had every officer sign a statement that they fully understood the pre-arrest diversion for adults.”

The audience — comprised of members of a dozen churches in Lakeland and Winter Haven — cheered.

Mutz said in 2023 only 37% of people eligible for the program — people with no record who committed one of at least seven non-violent misdemeanors — agreed to participate in it.

“In many cases, it’s because the individual doesn’t want to say, ‘I’m guilty’ — because you have to say, ‘I’m guilty,’ in order to utilize the adult diversion program,” Mutz explained.

On March 30, 2018, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Senate Bill 1392, which established pre-arrest diversion programs, and it went into law on July 1 of that year. The implementation is in partnership with the State Attorney’s Office.

It is already Lakeland Police policy “to use its resources and discretion to provide an alternative to arrest for certain designated crimes through a pre-arrest diversion program to qualified adults who are first-time offenders.” Those charges are:

  • Failure to redeliver hired or leased property.
  • Writing a worthless check.
  • Petit theft.
  • Possession of cannabis resin.
  • Possession of drug paraphernalia.
  • Possession of cannabis.
  • Dumping trash.

Officers, at their discretion, may also allow people to sign up for pre-arrest diversion for “other non-violent misdemeanors.”

Lakeland Police Department public information officer Robin Tillett said of the 38 people eligible for pre-arrest diversion last year, 11 entered the program — 10 for petit theft and one for possession of marijuana.

“The other 27 were not diverted, the majority of whom declined to admit guilt, which is the primary requisite to eligible for diversion,” Tillett said.

Broken taillight led to workplace arrest
PEACE activists want to see misdemeanor, non-violent criminal traffic violations incorporated into the pre-arrest diversion program. They point out that one ignored, forgotten or unknown ticket can snowball into a life-altering courthouse drama that can follow a person for their rest of their lives, including to their school, every job interview, military enlistment tries and even for those who try to adopt a baby.

In January 2012, Nicole — who asked that her last name not be used — received a citation for a broken taillight. Because she moved, a notice to appear in court was lost in the mail and so she wasn’t there on April 23 for the $32 ticket that had not yet been paid. At that point, the ticket had increased by another $60 for court fees. Court records show that when she didn’t show up, the judge issued a bench warrant for her arrest. A police officer, who was a family friend, saw her name on the warrant sheet, called her and told her to take care of it the next day.

Nicole planned to go to the courthouse after she finished her shift at a fast-food restaurant on May 14. Instead, something she never would have fathomed happened: a Polk County Sheriff’s deputy showed up at the restaurant on South Florida Avenue, put her in handcuffs and walked her out of the restaurant, across the drive-through lanes and into the parking lot next door, in front of all her co-workers and customers.

At six months pregnant, she spent the night in the Polk County Jail.

“Too many people are being burdened for life,” said Terry Bucher, who was representing St. Joseph’s Catholic Church of Winter Haven. “Once you have a criminal record, life can get very difficult for you.”

Because she had no arrest or even traffic citations prior to that January 2012 ticket, Judge Robert Griffin placed Nicole in a pre-trial diversion program, which she successfully completed. Once that happened, the charges were dropped. Her family also helped her pay court fees. But her record remains on file, not having the time or resources to have it expunged, which would wipe her record clean.

‘We are criminalizing poverty’
PEACE members say arresting someone over something so simple should stop. And they know that not everyone has the luxury of a loving family to help them out.

Bucher said 2,500 people in Polk County are arrested each year for non-dangerous driving misdemeanors when they can’t pay fines — or don’t know that they should.

“We are criminalizing poverty,” he added. “This is unacceptable.”

To which the audience said, “Amen.” Throughout the evening, they slipped into a call and response, with a speaker saying, “When peace shows up,” and the audience shouting, “Justice reigns!”

Then Bucher pointed to a string of paper chains that lined the steps to the altar — with hundreds of links strung together.

“Hundreds of people have signed these chains,” he said. “Every chain represents a person who could have had a second chance and we have a God of second chances. We are called to protect the poor.”

Only Legislature can change state laws
Mutz said some changes might have to take place at the state level, with new laws necessary to overhaul the system and include traffic offenses.

“When we have 71 deaths, fatalities in driving incidents last year, which is up from 33 the prior year, we have to be careful about who’s driving vehicles,” Mutz said. “And whereas police have the opportunity not to ticket based on what they might see in a scenario, if they do ticket it’s usually because of a couple of sets of issues that take place. We can’t make that change except at the state level.”

Last year, Lakeland Police Chief Sam Taylor said there are some types of expansion he would not support.

“We have been participating in the approved diversion program in partnership with our State Attorney’s Office since 2019. However, I am not advocating for an expanded diversion program to include crimes of knowingly driving with a suspended or revoked license,” Taylor told LkldNow. “Over my career, I’ve witnessed too many traffic crashes where lives were lost and families were forever impacted by persons who chose not to maintain a valid driver’s license.”

Mutz suggested that churches set up funds to help indigent people pay the traffic fines so a minor ticket doesn’t snowball into a felony case.

Jacob Orr, a spokesman for the State Attorney’s Office, said they don’t track the numbers of how many people are placed in a pre-arrest program versus how many people could have been, but were instead arrested or given a notice to appear citation and then placed in a pre-trial diversion program.

“I have no way to know how those people got to diversion,” Orr said. “Law enforcement are the ones who do it.”

And that is something else PEACE is hoping to change. They want the State Attorney’s Office and law enforcement agencies to track the numbers and provide them each year.

No one from the State Attorney’s Office attended the event, nor did anyone from the Polk County governmental offices. In addition to the mayor, City Commissioner Stephanie Madden and Teresa Maio, Lakeland assistant director of community development, were in the audience Monday night.

View the original story here.