Ruling upholds ATV ban on Prairie

OKEECHOBEE — “We’ve been warning and warning, but no one would listen,” said Deputy Lieutenant Randy Thomas earlier this week. ”We try not to write tickets. But if they’re going to press the issue then, yes, we’re going to write citations.”

The “issue” the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) deputy was speaking of was the riding of all terrain vehicles (ATVs) on county roadways — specifically, in the 5-square-acres of an area known as The Prairie. The situation came to a head recently when a Prairie resident ended up before County Judge Jerald Bryant.

That resident was issued a citation Jan. 2 by OCSO Deputy James Hartsfield. The resident chose to fight the ticket and hired Lake Placid attorney Charles Ervin. After Mr. Ervin presented his case, and Okeechobee county attorney John Cassels argued the county’s stance on the issue at the one-day trial held Friday, June 23, Judge Bryant issued his ruling on case number 2017TR018.

In his written order, Judge Bryant stated: “The court has considered the defendant’s driving history, the facts of this case and the fact that the question of law and jurisdiction in this case require clarification for the benefit of the public, especially owners and those who use lands within the Coquina Water Management District (CWMD) and the sheriff of Okeechobee County.

“Accordingly, the court withholds adjudication of guilt, thus no points will be assessed against defendant’s driving record. The court imposes the standard fine of $78, which must be paid within 30 days of June 23, 2017,” concluded the order.

“It’s been ongoing practically my whole career,” said Sheriff Noel Stephen, who has worn a badge for nearly 40 years. “Our shifts are being tied up due to reckless driver complaints. It got to the point we couldn’t keep up with what was going on.”

Just how big a problem are ATV riders on The Prairie? When one looks at the numbers, they back up Sheriff Stephen’s aforementioned statement.

According to those numbers released by the sheriff’s office in accordance with Florida public records law, so far this year on The Prairie there have been:
• 169 traffic stops;
• 21 traffic citations written;
• 8 traffic crashes;
• 17 traffic warnings;
• 18 reckless driver complaints; and,
• 17 suspicious vehicle complaints.

It should also be noted these numbers do not reflect any criminal call-outs or cases handled by OCSO deputies.

There are currently four OCSO deputies assigned to that area of the county. Still, if they are busy other deputies can be sent to The Prairie to handle a complaint.

“As our complaints escalated, to get them under control, we had to completely shut down ATV riding on The Prairie. No community within the Okeechobee community has free reign for ATV riding,” offered Sheriff Stephen.

Lt. Thomas, in explaining Florida state statute 316.2123 which governs the operation of ATVs, said all of the roads on The Prairie are considered public access, which means deputies then can enforce all state laws.

“If it’s used by the public and open to the public, state traffic laws can be enforced,” explained the lieutenant. “ATVs cannot be ridden on the roadways.”

The sheriff explained the stepped up enforcement by his agency goes back to a CWMD meeting in which he and assistant state attorney Ashley Albright were invited.

“We discussed the situation and the escalation of complaints. They asked us to step up our law enforcement. We continued with that selective law enforcement until we got to where we are now,” said Sheriff Stephen.

Where ‘they are now’ is issuing citations to ATV riders on any and all county roads, pointed out the lieutenant.

“The law says they are roadways, and we’re going to enforce it,” added Lt. Thomas.

Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News

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