Photos of sheriff’s ATV draw debate

OKEECHOBEE — When photos of Sheriff Noel Stephen driving an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) appeared on Facebook recently he didn’t try to hide from it. “That’s me,” he said.

The photos show the sheriff driving his ATV along a pathway and pulling a trailer that held a wild hog.

Those photos were published on a social media site after an article concerning the ticketing of ATV riders appeared in the Okeechobee News. Whoever took the three pictures wanted to know why ATV riders on The Prairie were being cited by deputies with the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO), but their boss was not.

These same people also wanted to know if the sheriff could legally transport a hog?

The short answer is yes, he can.

“I’m licensed to hunt feral hogs and to transport hogs, and I have a licensed facility to hold hogs,” explained Sheriff Stephen in a Wednesday, July 5, interview.

He had just captured that hog in one of his traps located near the Oak Leaf Golf Course on U.S. 441 North when the unidentified photographer captured the images on their cell phone.

The sheriff went on to point out he currently catches hogs for five landowners.

“I’ve been doing this for about 10 years. It’s my hobby,” he added.

He gives the hogs to hunting preserves and provides them for barbecues.

“I don’t charge anybody. Again, it’s my hobby,” he said.

He also noted that his “slow moving” decal had fallen off his four-wheel drive ATV.

What brought all of this on was a Sunday, July 2, article that dealt with a Prairie resident fighting his ticket for riding his ATV. That individual hired an attorney and took his case to court, where it was heard by County Judge Jerald Bryant. After hearing testimony from defense attorney Charles Ervin, as well as county attorney John Cassels, Judge Bryant upheld the citation and the defendant was ordered to pay the $78 fine.

The defendant apparently felt that because many of the roads on The Prairie are not maintained by the county, he could ride his ATV and not be doing so on a roadway.

However, argued Mr. Cassels, the Coquina Water District (CWD) had entered into an interlocal agreement with Sheriff Stephen by which they gave Okeechobee County, and the sheriff’s office, the right to enforce traffic laws on all roads that fall under the water district’s purview.

“Coquina is a water control district that’s actually the quasi governmental agency (on The Prairie),” said Mr. Cassels in a phone interview Wednesday, July 5.

It should be noted Mr. Cassels did not go before Judge Bryant on behalf of the sheriff. He was there to present the county’s position on the roads on The Prairie. And, what constitutes a roadway.

“If it’s a road where the public has a right to travel, other than on foot, then it’s under the traffic jurisdiction of the sheriff,” explained Mr. Cassels. “(And) the shoulders, or rights of way, are all part of the road.”

Some residents of The Prairie argue that many roads in that area are not maintained and, in some cases, are simply a grassy travel way.

Under the law, whether a road is maintained or not does not matter. Per the county attorney: if it’s open to the public, and the public can travel on it, then it is a road.

But for Sheriff Stephen, the point is taken.

“The point is made and the point is heard. I will avoid the double standard issue and trailer it (his ATV),” he said.

In fact, the sheriff noted his truck and trailer were located just out of range of the camera when those photos were taken.

It should also be added he had the landowner’s permission to ride his ATV along the path shown in the pictures. That path was on private property.

“But, I see the point and I will trailer it henceforth,” offered Sheriff Stephen.

Photo posted to social media show Sheriff Noel Stephen loading a wild hog into a trailer pulled by an All Terrain Vehicle and transporting it along a path on private property near a roadway.

 

Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News

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