Sheriff wins Coquina lawsuit -- again

Posted 3/4/21

A final judgment has been made between Sheriff Noel Stephen and Coquina

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Sheriff wins Coquina lawsuit -- again


OKEECHOBEE — A final summary judgment has been made in the ongoing battle between Sheriff Noel Stephen and Coquina Water Control District (CWCD).

Circuit Court Judge James Walter McCann ruled in favor of the defendant, Sheriff Stephen on Feb. 1, 2021 and declared the interlocal agreement between Coquina and the sheriff’s department is in effect until June 9, 2022.

CWCD does not have the authority to permit all-terrain, off-road or off-highway vehicle use on the roads within the district for recreational use. CWCD’s permission is insufficient to permit all-terrain, off-road or off-highway vehicles use on the roads within the district, read the order.

Sheriff Stephen has legal authority to conduct traffic enforcement activities on roads within the district. CWCD lacks the authority to terminate the sheriff’s legal authority to conduct traffic enforcement activities on the streets within the district and the streets within the district are public roads or open to public use, it continued.

The lawsuit against the sheriff was filed in June of 2019. Most believe the lawsuit was brought because some landowners in the district, known as the Prairie, want to be able to ride their all-terrain vehicles without regulation. Others say it is not about four-wheelers but about property rights.

In June 2017, Okeechobee County and CWCD approved an interlocal agreement giving the sheriff authority to enforce state laws on roads on the Prairie. This is one of the points of contention. Some of the landowners claim the easements between properties are not roads but are private property owned by the landowners on either side of the easement, and because they are not roads, the sheriff has no jurisdiction over them.

In February 2019, CWCD attempted to terminate the interlocal agreement. After receiving his copy of the termination letter, Sheriff Stephen stated, “The current Coquina board has notified the Okeechobee County Board of County Commissioners and me of their desire to rescind the current interlocal agreement. This agreement was an attempt at a cooperative arrangement between the sheriff’s office, the county and the Coquina board to address a number of issues, including traffic enforcement within the Prairie/Viking subdivision. There is and has been a difference of opinion between the current Coquina board and me, especially relating to traffic enforcement. Efforts to achieve common ground have been unsuccessful to date.

“Nevertheless, Florida law clearly grants me, as sheriff, authority to enforce the traffic laws upon any roads in Okeechobee County where the public has the right to travel by motor vehicle. As the public has ready access and nothing prohibits anyone from driving upon the roads within this subdivision, even though they may be privately owned, I will continue to enforce these laws until otherwise ordered by a court of law or the Legislature changes the law.”

When the lawsuit was filed, Prairie landowner James Griffith said: “The lawsuit is based strictly on Florida Statute. The law suit requests a declaration, or judge’s determination for three things (four technically) : (1) that the “Interlocal Agreement” (Traffic Enforcement) has been terminated, (2) that CWCD property is private and the sheriff has no authority to enforce traffic laws without a written agreement in accordance with FS316.640 and FS316.006, and (3) that CWCD has authority to authorize recreational use of their property which is already expressly authorized by FS 298.22(12).

“So you might ask, if these are already recognized and authorized by statute (Florida Law) then why file a lawsuit? Well, it’s because the sheriff continues to (allegedly) violate all three laws, declaring in writing, on the radio, and on video, that he will continue until a judge tells him otherwise. This troubles me and it troubles my neighbors as well as it troubles CWCD. So, CWCD is first to file suit! I believe it’s quite possible that the homeowners and landowners will follow. I can’t help but ask the question … Let’s say for kicks, that I manufacture whiskey. The law says I can’t. But I decide maybe I can. I’m not sure, but maybe, so I declare that I’ll just keep doing so until a judge tells me otherwise! Makes sense? I understand that the sheriff and county may be requesting the governor and attorney general to open an investigation. All the people I’ve spoken to are excited to hear this. We want, …. hell, we demand an investigation! Here’s a small taste of what they might find that’s been happening for the past two and a half years.

“The traffic enforcement CWCD signed up for (on behalf of the community) is not what we’re getting. What became of this enforcement is not traffic enforcement by any stretch of the imagination. When a person skids through a four-way stop, destroying another vehicle, but is friends of the deputy — no tickets are issued (we have photos), no one is at fault! When vehicles vandalize our easements and are abandoned in ditches, no tickets are issued. However, when a certain few deputies travel deep into private property and harass the property owners using OHVs on their property or Coquina’s, then tickets are issued and their OHVs are towed, and then they dupe the county judge into believing they were on public roads (I’m a witness). THIS is NOT traffic enforcement! When good citizens are arrested and spend two to three days in jail for arguing with deputies that it’s unlawful to tow their perfectly operational OHVs from private property. THIS is NOT traffic enforcement! When vehicles get towed from private property without landowner authorization and deputies use their friends towing company outside of rotation and without documentation, THIS is NOT traffic enforcement!”

Kent Malinowski, co-chairman of the Prairie Landowners Steering Committee, said this is not just about ATVs. The landowners believe their private property rights are being trampled on. They want their private land rights restored. They want safe and courteous riding by landowners only, and he states they have a working plan that came from a meeting with the sheriff and two commissioners. They want the county commissioners to recognize that as special district landowners, they have special control over their land and easements.

Although there were some who agreed with Griffith, there were also detractors. Ashleigh Vanskike said: “I am a landowner and I support the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO). I do not agree with this wasteful and fraudulent spending of my tax dollars. Coquina Water Management and its board is just that, water management and has no business spending our tax dollars this way or meddling in things not assigned to them. With the few interactions with the deputies I have had, they have always been very professional and followed the law. From what I have been seeing they have been far more lenient than they could have been. I stand behind the blue!”

Bobby Wynn said: “There are a lot of homeowners out here that don’t want James Griffith and his ATVs destroying our roads, and I am one of those home owners. We need OCSO patrolling all roads out here. Coquina only has an easement down all grass roads to drain water.”

In Dec. 2020, 19th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Laurie Buchanan judge upheld Sheriff Stephen’s right to enforce the law on the roads controlled by CWCD.

Although the sheriff said he hoped the ruling would put the dispute over Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office jurisdiction to enforce traffic laws on the roads on the Prairie to rest, it did not. A notice of appeal was filed on Jan. 27 sending the matter to Judge McCann, who upheld her decision.

In addition to ruling in favor of the sheriff, the court also reserved jurisdiction to determine the defendant’s entitlement to an amount of court costs to be recovered from the plaintiff. The sheriff said he has not decided whether he should seek reimbursement for legal fees. While the Coquina board pressed the lawsuit, many of the residents of the Viking Properties did not want this fight, he explained. “They want law enforcement.” He said if the court orders Coquina to pay the sheriff’s legal fees, that money would come from the Coquina taxpayers.

“I hope this will convince Coquina I have jurisdiction,” he said. “Their focus needs to be on the ditches and rights-of-way and easements for water control and leave the law enforcement function to me.”

According to Attorney Scott Fitzpatrick of the Owen's Law Group, It's not over until it's over. The case has been appealed and will be heard by a panel of judges in the District Court of Appeal. There, they will come back with one of three decisions, to reverse the decision made by the lower court, to send the case back through the lower court or to affirm the lower court's decision.  "They will be looking at it with fresh eyes," he said.