Them's Felonious Words, Pardner

If you're getting arrested for panhandling in Miami, you'd better not threaten to sue

Willie Wilkerson has been bedding down at the Dade County Jail. He was arrested on June 27 by a Miami police officer who says he saw the 38-year-old panhandling on Biscayne Boulevard downtown. Pestering passersby for small change is considered a misdemeanor in Florida and doesn't normally merit jail time, but Wilkerson's behavior that evening struck Ofcr. Jose Gonzalez as unusually menacing.

"I observed defendant standing on the corner of an intersection," Gonzalez wrote in his report. "When the light turned red, defendant approached awaiting vehicles and began knocking on windows demanding money. I instructed defendant to stay out of the intersection and defendant replied, 'Fuck you, I ain't did nothing.' Defendant arrested. While in the back seat of my police vehicle, defendant refused to give me his name or any information and stated, 'You go on and arrest me and see what's going to happen to you when I get out. I will take your ass to the State Attorney's Office and file a charge if you arrest me.'"

Gonzalez proceeded to charge Wilkerson with two misdemeanors: failure to obey a lawful command and resisting arrest without violence. He also tacked on a felony: threatening a public servant. It was the felony charge that triggered Wilkerson's stay in the slammer.

Robyn Blumner, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, says Gonzalez's interpretation of the law may have violated Wilkerson's civil rights.

"A panhandler can't trespass on a car by knocking on its window," she concedes. "They certainly can go up to a car and ask for money, but they can't physically touch a vehicle. So I think it was okay for the officer to intervene in that situation. But a threat to a public official? I think that's a little remote. You have the right to declare your intention to sue someone."

Kitty Garcia Larson, the assistant public defender who is likely to represent Wilkerson at his July 18 arraignment, says the charge may have been appropriate in a different context -- if Wilkerson had been arrested for a violent crime, for instance, or if he had threatened to harm Gonzalez. "This guy wasn't really doing anything," she protests. "The cop had nothing to fear, and then he charged this gentleman with threatening him."

Wilkerson's bond is $5000. Larson says she hopes to persuade the State Attorney's Office to drop the felony charge, thus increasing the defendant's chances of release to a pretrial program in lieu of paying bond.

"He was stating his intent to exercise his right to file a complaint or to discuss his complaint with someone in the State Attorney's Office," the defense attorney observes. "That in and of itself should not be considered a crime or a threat."

At press time, Wilkerson was still bunking courtesy of the state.

 
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