Sheriff Stephen is asked to investigate deputy

OKEECHOBEE — Sheriff Noel Stephen received an unusual letter from the Owens Law Group this week asking for a formal investigation into the alleged abusive practices of Deputy Bryan Holden toward the land owners in the Viking Estates, also known as the Prairie.

The letter states the Owens Law Group was retained by Coquina Water Control District (CWCD) because, ever since CWCD entered into an agreement with the sheriff’s department and the county of Okeechobee to perform traffic control on various private roads owned by CWCD in June of 2017, numerous landowners have made complaints to CWCD that Deputy Holden has been abusive toward them on CWCD’s private land.

The letter continues, at its annual landowners’ meeting, it was decided that any further complaints against local deputies would be collected and forwarded anonymously to the appropriate authorities as long as the complaints were determined to be non-frivolous.

They were and will be sent anonymously in order to protect those who feared retaliation. It was also decided at the meeting to submit a letter to authorities requesting removal of Deputy Holden from the district permanently.

The letter lists the alleged abuses as the following:
• Abuse of authority;
• Abuse of process;
• Lack of courtesy;
• Lack of professionalism;
• Neglect of duty;
• Retaliation against landowners who have previously filed complaints against him;
• Overly authoritative;
• Offensive;
• Indignant when interacting with landowners;
• Berates and threatens landowners within the district;
• Traffic enforcement within district is biased;
• Sometimes impounds vehicles and/or ATVs during traffic stops (although an attached statistics report shows no confiscations between 2015 and 2017);
• Landowners have been arrested for making suggestions for alternative method of vehicle/ATV removal;
• His volatile demeanor has some residents in fear for their lives;
• Many landowners are afraid to make a formal complaint in fear of retaliation.
The letter concludes with a formal request for an investigation of Deputy Holden immediately and for him to be permanently removed from the district.

Sheriff Stephen said has not received a single complaint about Deputy Holden, despite all the rumors flying around.

He said in April he held a workshop with the CWCD, and he heard people saying a friend of a friend of a friend told me he did something, but no one ever came forward with an official complaint.

Sheriff Stephen explained to them how to file a complaint and that he would take it very seriously, but not one person has ever come to him with a complaint.

“How can I investigate if no one comes forward?” he asked. He said he can’t investigate if he doesn’t have information.

Sheriff Stephen went on to add Deputy Holden has been a deputy for more than eight years with no complaints at all in his file. He said the deputy grew up out on the Prairie. He went to high school in Okeechobee. “I’m not going to turn my back on my deputy. Usually when someone complains about a deputy in this way, it’s because he is doing his job,” said the sheriff.

Sheriff Stephen explained the statistics report about confiscated ATVs by saying, “That’s an easy one. Those ATVs were not confiscated. They were impounded. They asked for the wrong records.”

Sheriff Stephen went on to explain he has instructed his deputies to enforce all traffic laws on the Prairie, and because the Prairie is not a gated community, it makes no difference whether it is private property or not. When the public has free access to the area, the sheriff’s office is legally responsible for enforcing traffic laws whether they have an interlocal agreement with the community or not. This is why people can ride their golf carts in gated mobile home parks and not on the Prairie. He said they usually give warnings, especially if the person stopped is a minor because he knows the fine will end up coming out of the parents’ pockets, and that is not the point. The point is to stop the riding on the roads. He also said he leaves the decision on whether to give a warning or a ticket to his deputies, and it is based on the attitude of the person the deputy is dealing with. The sheriff said he had to crack down on the ATV riding after so many complaints.

“Really, it’s gotten progressively worse over the last 33 years,” he said.

Sheriff Stephen added he does not practice any form of selective law enforcement. He does his best to treat everyone with fairness in all areas of his life. “And about the golf carts I am accused of allowing to ride all around town,” he said. “I don’t allow that. They are stopped every time they are caught too.”

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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