Like many of the drifters who call the Florida Keys home, Kenneth Alsip got busted for trespassing. Only this time, he spent more time in jail than usual, 30 days in all, ping-ponged between Key West and Palm Beach County because of a hurricane named Irma.
He finally got his freedom Wednesday. But the ordeal wasn’t over. Alsip needed to catch a bus ride 85 miles north to get his belongings stashed in Plantation Key.
Another man arrested for trespassing and possession of drug paraphernalia hoped to leave jail to return to his boat moored off Marathon — if it could be salvaged. “My boat is in the mangroves, I’m told. I’m not sure,” Steven Wolf told a judge on Wednesday.
Then there was Colin McQueenie, a regular character in the Key West jail, who copped to drinking from an open container in public. He spent 32 days behind bars. “I’m just thankful you didn’t take my whiskey away for good,” McQueenie quipped.
Monroe County Judge Ruth Becker-Painter, fanning herself with a court file in a stuffy room at the main jail on Stock Island, could only smile.
“Well... don’t drink where you shouldn’t,” she said.
Justice returned to paradise on Wednesday as Monroe County held its first bona fide criminal-court hearing since Hurricane Irma forced the evacuation of more than 400 jail inmates and scattered judges, lawyers and support staff away from the island chain.
The cases were called and closed rapid fire, all of them agreements between prosecutors and defense lawyers to clear the jail of about 20 petty criminals arrested in the weeks before Hurricane Irma slammed into Cudjoe Key on Sept. 10.
An island chain stretching 113 miles, the Florida Keys are a unique place to practice criminal law, requiring lots of driving and a tolerance for high rent despite the small-town vibe. “All the other attorneys think we come in wearing sandals and cargo shorts,” said Assistant Public Defender Victor Palacios, 33, a Miami native who wore a blazer for court Wednesday.
Major crimes exist, of course — one man awaiting trial for attempted murder also owns several derelict boats, one of which, the sailboat Cuki, broke free and somehow washed ashore upstate in Melbourne.
But most crimes are small time: the homeless person arrested for trespassing, the addict arrested for drugs, the Miami weekend tourist arrested after too much booze at some tiki bar in the Middle Keys.
And most of those might have gotten out of custody sooner if not for Irma.
Many were housed at the Monroe Detention Center on Stock Island right outside Key West. The building is constructed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, but authorities were worried that the aftermath — with no electricity, fuel or provisions — would pose too much of a challenge to keep inmates and the public safe.
So Monroe deputies evacuated 466 inmates to Palm Beach and court proceedings were suspended. The exact cost to taxpayers for the move hasn’t been tallied yet; it normally costs Monroe $99.30 per day to house inmates.
With debris-filled roads, downed cell towers and little functioning electricity, resuming court was a logistical nightmare.
Even so, several Keys assistant public defenders, along with social workers and counterparts from Palm Beach, interviewed more than 200 Monroe inmates who had been evacuated. With no computer records to rely on — the clerk’s website went down during the storm — they relied on paper logs to track every inmate who might have been eligible for release in the coming days.
“Everyone was interviewed in two days, just to make sure no one slipped through the cracks,” said Key West Assistant Public Defender Michael Freedman, 34, who evacuated first to Miami, then to Palm Beach, before Irma hit.
With issues of timely justice looming, the courts toyed with the idea of holding hearings for Monroe inmates with specially appointed judges in Palm Beach County. But with recovery efforts progressing quickly, officials ultimately decided they could make it work back in the Keys.
Officially, all three Monroe courthouses will open on Monday for calendar calls. Individual judges will have to sort out arraignments, trials and other scheduling issues.
But to ease the backlog and inmate ranks, lawyers and judges agreed to hold a series of plea hearings at the jail.
“It’s a small community. We’ve got a lot of clients we already knew,” said Public Defender Robert Lockwood, whose office employs just 18 attorneys. “They’re very easy to talk to. We wanted to get them out of custody and take care of them.”
Even on a normal day, convening court requires aligning lots of moving parts — prosecutors, defense lawyers, cops, jailers, court reporters, clerks, judicial assistants and witnesses must all convene at the courthouse.
On Wednesday, they all gathered in the lobby of the jail. Some lawyers wore jeans or plaid shirts. Judge Becker-Painter arrived in sandals, Nike shorts and a sleeveless blouse — she’d spent the morning doing repairs to her storm-damaged home.
“Are we all ready to roll?” she asked energetically before putting on her black judicial robe.
Court started in an adjacent judicial room. Her bench was a large table that would have looked great in someone’s kitchen. Clerks and the prosecutor sat there too, with a line of other lawyers seated along a wall.
The inmates, dressed in jail blues, sat politely in rows of chairs. Most knew the drill. One by one, most pleaded guilty or no contest for jail time already served: 35 days for petty theft, 27 days for drinking from an open container, 38 days for failing to register as a convicted felon.
Deputies, their foreheads beaded with sweat, fingerprinted each man. In a little more than an hour, the docket was completed. The men would be released, back to the streets.
The process will repeat Thursday and Friday, for felony cases that are ready to resolve with plea deals.
“I’m proud of everybody,” Lockwood said. “It was a little hard to get everything together. We knocked it out in about an hour. The clients are happy. The attorneys are happy. It’s really going to take a lot of pressure off when court system opens up.”