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Wednesday, Jul 23, 2014

Pinellas deputies pass on court reimbursements

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LARGO — It wasn’t double-dipping exactly.

Some Pinellas County sheriff’s deputies were taking a $5 witness fee paid by the clerk of courts whenever they attended a court proceeding, even though they already were getting paid by the sheriff for their time.

These deputies, however, were not pocketing the $5, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. Rather, they were turning the $5 checks into the sheriff’s budget department, which used the $5 to offset some the deputies’ regular salaries.

The whole process, however, was counterproductive, Gualtieri said. The amount of money collected wasn’t enough to cover the staff salaries and time the budget office spent to account for each $5 check.

“The amount of time it takes to process it, we’re losing money on that,” the sheriff said. “It’s just not worth it.”

In general, anyone, including a law enforcement agent, is entitled to $5 if they need to be at a court proceeding in their county. They are also entitled to 6 cents per mile to travel to and from a court appearance.

But when police and deputies testify, they are more often than not on the clock, so they already are being paid. As they often use department vehicles, the cost of gas isn’t coming out of their pockets, either, so they are not entitled to mileage reimbursement.

Many municipalities, such as St. Petersburg, are clear as to what its police officers should do: If they are getting paid, they are not to take the $5, and if they are not getting paid, it’s OK to take it.

Apparently, there was some confusion over the issue at the sheriff’s office, even though there is no scenario under which a deputy does not get paid when he or she is at a court proceeding. Off-duty deputies get paid overtime if they are called to appear, Gualtieri said.

While some deputies refused the $5, others were taking the checks and turning them into the sheriff’s office, Gualtieri said.

“We want to be consistent with what we’ve been doing,” Gualtieri said.

On Nov. 4, Chief Deputy George S. Steffen issued a memorandum to all employees spelling out what they should and shouldn’t be doing.

“Because agency members are always compensated for attendance, they are not entitled to accept and retain witness fee payments,” the memorandum states.

It could not be determined how much in witness fees the clerk of the courts has given paid to the sheriff’s office, or to any other law enforcement agency in its circuit.

“Our office is able to give statistical data on how much a particular officer has received in witness fee monies, however we do not maintain this information broken down by police agency,” Connie Daniels, director of court and operational services, said in an email.

“The monies do not go back to the agency, but the officer,” she wrote.

sthompson@tampatrib.com. (727) 215-6504.

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