As submitted to The Huffington Post April 6, 2009
*Author’s note-When I started this assignment in February ACORN was heavily in the news. Since that time we’ve heard less about foreclosures due in part to the Government’s asking for a moratorium and some banks actively working to modify their mortgages, however, the crisis is about to heat up again as the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae moratoriums ended on March 31. The other players in this drama are the mortgage bankers, who as of this posting have not responded to my request for an interview, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office acting as officers of the court. We know who the bankers are and basically what they do, but very few people know what a modern day sheriff does, so I thought this would be of interest.
Huffington Post published today 4/14/09, however they did a heavy edit and lost some of the flavor of this article.
When we think of the Sheriff most of us evoke images of the Wild West and with good reason. Early 50’s television made icons of Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickock, Pat Garrett and Wyatt Earp among others who actually were lawmen that made their reputations with their guns. In the 30’s through the 70’s John Wayne made a slew of movies where he either played a sheriff or marshal and some movies where he actually exposed the sheriff as a crook. These films usually showed the evil banker who holds the mortgage on the ranch and his accomplices (usually a corrupt businessman, in most cases the saloon owner, and a crooked sheriff) who steal the cattle and then foreclose on the property, sometimes with the help of a corrupt judge, because the rancher can’t pay. Normally the reason is because the railroad is coming through and all these corrupt people are looking to cash in at someone else’s expense. It appears that, given the situations, some things haven’t changed all that much. The concept of the evil or corrupt sheriff comes from the many stories of Robin Hood where the evil, plotting and mostly inept Sheriff of Nottingham still gets his due on the screen. Our concept of small town sheriff is permanently etched in our memory from The Andy Griffith Show. Reality Check: these Wild West Sheriffs did help bring law and order to the West. The Sheriff of Nottingham is based on a real person, most likely William de Wendenall, and Sheriff Andy Taylor is not unlike his modern day counterpart in our less populated counties.
History of the Sheriff
The word sheriff is actually a contraction of two words, shire and reeve. Prior to the Norman invasion of England the King appointed someone, usually a lord, to be the chief legal official (Reeve) of each shire. This person had the responsibility to keep the peace, collect the taxes and sometimes settle legal disputes between parties. As the English language evolved the title became Sheriff. When Great Britain first colonized the North American continent the separate colonies appointed their own sheriffs to uphold the law. After the American Revolution the sheriff became an elected position. The Sheriff, in most cases, is the highest law enforcement officer in his county and has control of the county prison system. In the northeastern US the Sheriff doesn’t normally have to be the law enforcement arm. They are responsible for prisoner transport and for serving warrants and writs. State Police and city police forces take care of the law enforcement. In southern and western states where there are fewer big cities, less population and more territory to cover the Sheriff’s office plays a larger role. The Orange County Florida Sheriff’s Office is a perfect example of a modern day operation. The office now has 2400 uniformed, non-uniformed and clerical employees, serving over 1,000,000 residents and 45,000,000 tourists annually. They patrol the entire county as many of the Orange County municipalities are too small to have their own police force so they sign contracts for that protection. They have criminal, investigative, undercover, narcotics, and civil process units and act as any large municipal police force with the added responsibility of running the county prison system, serving writs and handling a number of civil duties.
My interview with the Sheriff’s Office
I contacted the Sheriff’s office on Feb 27 as a follow up to the articles we were doing on ACORN home defenders. I felt it was only fair all that sides were presented and had the opportunity to explain their positions. It took almost a month to get a response, and then it was the wrong person and wrong department. Capt. Tina Gordon who is in command of an enforcement unit called me as my request had filtered down to her. I explained my position to her; I wanted to talk to the people who actually do the foreclosures to get their side of the story. She apologized to me. Why? I don’t know. It wasn’t her fault. She did offer to find out who I should talk to and, true to her word, two days later Lt. Robert Corriveau called me to set up an appointment.
Robert Corriveau looks like he played fullback in the pros. He is solidly built and rugged with a mustache that is beginning to turn gray. He’s been in law enforcement for 27 years, 25 years in Orange County. For many years he was a street officer and spent time in the Drug Enforcement division. He entered the civil unit on 9/9/01 which was tantamount to a baptism by fire. My first question to him was “What is it exactly that your department does?” He named a bunch of duties including transporting prisoners, extraditions, serving the writs of possession and intervening in domestic disputes, all within the jurisdiction of the courts. His division does not choose what actions to take; it is ordered to do so by the courts. I asked him how he felt about the record number of evictions that his division participates in. His answer was that it is not pleasant and no one in the department looks forward to it, but it is part of the job and it needs to be done. He emphasized that the Sheriff is a public servant who is an impartial third party. He acts under court order and not at the direction of the landlord or the mortgage company. He is there to insure the orderly transfer of possession. When I asked how many foreclosures his department was handling he told me that there is no specific number. Foreclosure sales are not handled by the Sheriff’s Office-they are handled by the County Clerk’s Office at the courthouse. He receives a Writ of Possession from the court that is served on the property. It may be from a landlord or from a bank and there is no way of knowing until the actual writ is received by his office. All Writs of Possession are handled in the same manner. He offered instead the figures from 2001 through 2008 plus the first two months of 2009.
In 2001 his office handled less than 1000 eviction orders. By the year 2006 that number had increased to 7,180. In 2007 the number increased again to 8,400 and in 2008 alone there was a 26% increase to 10,243. Figures for Jan-Feb 2009 are even higher. January had 1089 scheduled evictions and February had 891. At the same time, Corriveau noted that his domestic violence unit had 13% less activity for 2008 but he stopped short of asserting that there is clear correlation in those figures. That would probably take a separate study.
Lt. Corriveau arranged for me to travel with one of his deputies during his normal shift so that I could get a feel for what his department does. This is not something special because it is a service that is offered to any county resident who requests it, as long as they fill out an application and pass a background check, which I had to do. The specific date was Wednesday, April 1 at 7:00 AM.
When do we stop for donuts?
Back in the 1980’s there was an episode of Hill Street Blues that featured a local TV news crew following officer Renko on his daily rounds. The agenda of the reporter was to point out all of the time wasted by Renko at coffee shops or lunch counters making it seem that most of the time he wasn’t on the job. I know it’s a distorted picture, but I can’t help thinking back to that episode every time I see a uniformed officer doing exactly what we all do at coffee break time or lunch, especially since Charles Haid’s Renko character was a dedicated cop who was seriously wounded in the line of duty. I didn’t want to have any preconceived ideas about what was about to take place. I met Master Deputy Stan Spanich at the courthouse just before the appointed time. He was dressed in gray slacks and dark blue plaid sport shirt just like any other civilian, although the nine millimeter automatic on his hip and the handcuffs gave me a clue that he was in law enforcement. Physically he could be a stand-in double for Governor Crist. We introduced ourselves and went to his car, a late model Chevy Impala. Any prior ideas I might have had were quickly put to rest now that I’m with a regular guy riding in a family sedan getting ready to do the peoples’ business.
Stan Spanich has been a policeman for 35 years. A native of Chicago, he spent 15 years on the force there as a street cop and in other units including narcotics, investigations and a stint as a mounted policeman. He’s been in Central Florida for 20 years and has been in the civil division for 5 years. He is capable of handling any situation that arises, and as I discovered during the day he is strictly by the book, and a gentleman at all times. His territory covers Orange County west of John Young Parkway to Lake County and south of US Route 50 to Osceola County. It’s a large territory that encompasses wealthy communities like Windermere as well as Universal Studios, The Greater Orlando Convention area and Sea World. Today he has 22 postings that include some evictions and notices to vacate. He always starts in the southern end in order to clear the tourist areas before the traffic gets too heavy. He remarked that today is a lighter than usual day, but he expects things to get busier soon due to the lifting of the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae moratoriums. Our day starts off at the upscale Northbridge Apartments which is a large complex that boasts a few Orlando Magic players and other personalities that should be well able to afford the rent. Some people, however, have fallen on harder times and have fallen behind. He has three final notice postings in this complex which means that either he or one of the unit’s process servers have been there prior to now. Once this notice has been posted he will return within 72 hours to assure that the tenant has vacated. He also leaves his secret mark on the door (which I will not divulge) to avoid any tenant’s claim that they were never notified.
This is a definite route. Every security guard and maintenance man is on a first name basis with him at every complex we visit. He is probably in these places at least twice a month. The only foreclosure eviction he had today was at a complex where there are apartments as well as condos. This one was a little complicated because the tenant had been paying on time every month, but the owner was not making the mortgage payments and this was the day that she had to vacate. A property management firm was there to change the locks; however the tenant was not fully moved out and needed some more time. Spanich intervened and diplomatically convinced the representative to give her some extra time. There was no screaming, no histrionics and no pressure. In this case there had been a lengthy legal proceeding and the tenant had found another place to live. Spanich felt satisfied that it worked out.
Spanich had cleared the tourist areas by 10:30 and we had also managed to get through two thirds of his postings for the day. I offered to buy breakfast so that we could talk for a while without the radio or any other official stuff happening. He intimated that today was the first time in years that he forgot to bring his own lunch, and he never takes the time for a coffee break, however he was far enough ahead that it would be OK.
During our conversation I learned that the Sheriff’s Office encourages all of their personnel to be involved in community affairs. Sheriff’s deputies are involved in homeowner associations, little league, community theatre and all the things that people do who aren’t in law enforcement. This was also told to me by Lt. Corriveau. We compared pictures of our grandchildren and we discussed the economy and the effects it has on his department. He told me a humorous story that happened to him about a month ago during an eviction in Windermere. As the tenant was vacating the 3,000,000.00 property he told Spanich “I just can’t afford the $14,000.00 per month rent anymore.” Well, some people have their priorities. I also asked him what he would do if anyone ever refused to vacate. He answered that he would have to warn them that if they don’t vacate he would have to arrest them and put the cuffs on them. He said that it has never happened to him in the civil division and he has never had to draw his weapon in a domestic situation. When I pressed him about ACORN’s home defenders, he said that he’ll do what’s necessary when faced with that situation, and he obviously will not act on his own. He hopes that the situation will never arise.
Keep on truckin’
The further north we travelled there was a definite difference in the quality of property we visited. These were smaller units that were definitely not upscale. The rents were lower and the maintenance budgets were less expensive. Needless to say, there were no swimming pools or tennis courts as in the units further south. A few people had already abandoned before the final notice was put up, however, in one complex two people scheduled for final notice had actually paid the back rent, late charges and court fees and were not leaving. This brought a smile of satisfaction to Spanich’s face. The last two postings were in public housing projects. These are not part of his district and he is covering for an associate who was on vacation, and it’s on his way back to file his reports and set appointments for tomorrow and Friday.
Other people’s trash
It’s really amazing what people leave behind when they leave their property. What happens is that after the formal eviction the landlord takes whatever personal property is left behind and puts it on the sidewalk for anyone to recover. The tenant has no legal right to the stuff anymore but it’s there if they want to reclaim it. If not the scavengers will get it. There’s always broken furniture or kitchen gadgets left behind, but in one particular apartment there was a Bendix entertainment unit from 1949 in the living room that housed a 7” TV, radio and 3 speed turntable in a beautiful wood cabinet. The unit, whether working or not should be worth something to a museum or curio dealer. In other units there were working television sets, vacuum cleaners, blenders, blankets and sheets, etc.
Once Spanich was off the route we parted company as I didn’t need to witness his phone calls or reports. He promised to call me if he had a hot foreclosure coming up so that I could meet him and see how he handles it. Summing up it was a learning experience, informative if not exciting. Since I didn’t really know what to expect I wasn’t disappointed, but I did wonder if the other deputies in his division had similar days in their areas, and if they ever had to draw their weapons. That might be a follow up question for Robert Corriveau. Frankly, I walked away with a positive view of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.
The ACORN office is located about four blocks from the courthouse, so I decided to go see Meredith Adrion and tell her of my day. Acorn had requested a meeting with Sheriff Jerry Demings around the same time as I did. Adrion said that he has not met with them so far and she doesn’t know if or when he will. She’s also going to inform me of any future actions Acorn will be taking.
Lieutenant Robert Corriveau