|Brown lawn means jail time
St. Petersberg Times | October 11, 2008
BAYONET POINT — On Friday morning, Joseph Prudente put on a pair of shorts and his "Grandpa Gone Wild" T-shirt. He took off his wedding band and put his heart medication in a plastic Wal-Mart bag.
Then his daughter drove him to jail. Grandpa had time to do.
His crime? He had disobeyed a court order that he sod the lawn at his Beacon Woods home.
His bail? Zero.
Prudente, 66, must stay in the Pasco County jail in Land O'Lakes until the required sod work is completed, under a September court order signed by Circuit Judge W. Lowell Bray.
"He's in prison for God knows how long because we can't afford to sod the lawn," said his sobbing daughter, Jennifer Lehr.
Prudente has owned a home in the deed restricted community since 1998. The covenants require homeowners to keep their lawns covered with grass.
Earlier this year, the Beacon Woods Civic Association took Prudente to court after he failed to install new sod on his browning lawn, which had withered after his sprinklers broke. The association had already sent letters telling him to resod his front and back yards by certain dates.
In an interview at the jail Friday evening, Prudente said he thought he had made a good financial hardship case to the association: His adjustable rate mortgage went up an extra $600 a month. Wachovia repossessed his Toyota Scion. His daughter and her two young children, who had fallen on hard times, moved in with him and his wife, Pat.
"To me, keeping the house is more important than the grass," said Prudente, a retired registered nurse from New York. "I just ignored them."
He ignored them, too, after the association filed a complaint in court. He ignored a court order in May, signed by Bray, giving Prudente 30 days to sod the yard.
In June, the court also awarded the association $795 in fees, which included a $645 attorney's fees and a $150 fee for "an expert witness."
By September, there was still no sod. Bray found Prudente in contempt of court, but said in his order that Prudente could "purge himself of this contempt" by doing the required work within the next 30 days. That time expired Friday.
"It is clear to the Court that the ability to avoid incarceration is well within the Defendant's grasp," Bray wrote.
Representatives of the Beacon Woods association expressed regret Prudente had landed in jail. But they said it was his own fault.
"It's a sad situation," said board president Bob Ryan, who added that the association had followed all the correct procedures. "But in the end, I have to say he brought it upon himself."
Lawyer Thomas Gurran, who represents the association, said in a statement that the association had "just wanted Mr. Prudente to comply with the lawn restriction." He added that the contempt power of judges is essential to the system.
"Many orders and judgements … would be absolutely meaningless if they could not be enforced by a judge's contempt power," he said. "This case is an example of what happens when someone defies an order entered by a judge in our country."
Prudente's family said the case had gone too far. Pat Prudente said she and her husband knew they had chosen to live in a community with restrictions. "But they shouldn't have this much power," she said.
Back at the jail — where the population is 1,132, well above the 782 capacity — Parente said he was being treated well. He has no criminal record in Florida and said his stay in Land O'Lakes was his first time ever in a slammer.
What comes next? He doesn't know. "Should I go out and rob a bank? Then I'd be back here," he said. "But then I'd get out on bail."