Monday, April 12, 2021

Danny Mootispaw Back in Court Six-month ordeal ends with a rush


Collier County Circuit Judge Janeice Martin Submitted Photo

Collier County Circuit Judge Janeice Martin Submitted Photo

This is the fourth article I have written about my friend, Danny Mootispaw. He has captured the imagination of most of us in Goodland and much of Marco Island. This is the story of Danny’s second ordeal in the courts. It is also the story of one who refuses to back down in the face of perceived injustice. It started on April 4 of this year and did not end until October 12. It all began, when on April 4, Danny was ticketed by Florida Fish and Wildlife Officer, Kyle Plussa.

Last March, many of you noticed the disappearance of Danny’s boat, the “Fish Camp” as he has christened it, from its anchorage near the Stan Gober Bridge. In response to generous offers to rebuild his rotting superstructure (of which, more in a later edition), Danny kedged his boat inshore and tied up next to Brian Waters’ boat, a close friend, who, according to Danny, had asked him to keep an eye on it while Waters was out of town. Waters’ boat, a leaky, engineless, 42-foot houseboat, could also be classified as a hulk and had in fact recently been ticketed for re moval from Goodland waters by the Collier County Sheriffs Office (CCSO).

Danny Mootispaw in the author’s office, during one of many interviews. Photos by Barry Gwinn

Danny Mootispaw in the author’s office, during one of many interviews. Photos by Barry Gwinn

On the afternoon of April 4, Danny’s daughter had brought some chicken and potato salad to her dad. The two of them were enjoying a picnic lunch on Waters’ boat when a CCSO patrol boat arrived with Officer Plussa aboard. The accounts as to what happened next are conflicting as between Plussa’s arrest report and Danny’s recounting of the incident. What is clear however is that after talking to Danny and looking at the boat’s title and registration, Plussa cited Danny for three criminal misdemeanor charges for operating, using and storing a derelict vessel on state waters, failure to transfer title, and failure to transfer registration within 30 days of ownership change.

Danny’s boat, “Fish Camp” (left) is moored next to Brian Waters’ houseboat. Despite not owning Waters’ boat, Danny was cited on April 4 for not keeping its registration and title up to date.

Danny’s boat, “Fish Camp” (left) is moored next to Brian Waters’ houseboat. Despite not owning Waters’ boat, Danny was cited on April 4 for not keeping its registration and title up to date.

Danny felt that he could prove in court that he had never owned Waters’ boat in the first place. He never got the chance. What happened next is a prime example of what happens when a defendant is indigent and cannot afford competent legal representation. Thereafter, Danny was ordered to appear in court on nine different occasions. He faithfully complied with each order. I was present on all but one occasion. Each time, the case was continued without opportunity for Danny to present any kind of defense.

Danny’s 15-foot storage scow tied fast to the Fish Camp; Danny was cited for not having working navigational lights on this boat, which has no motor and is only used for storage.

Danny’s 15-foot storage scow tied fast to the Fish Camp; Danny was cited for not having working navigational lights on this boat, which has no motor and is only used for storage.

On May 16, we felt that a lawyer might speed things up. Through a benefactor, Danny was able to hire a lawyer from the Public Defender’s Office (for a $50 fee). That’s when things went from bad to worse. At each subsequent appearance, the lawyer would ask for a continuance, because of something he said he needed to straighten out. He needed to review documents, locate witnesses etc. Except for a brief five-minute meeting outside the courtroom, the lawyer made no attempt to interview Danny or myself, whom Danny had listed as a material witness. To my knowledge, neither did he contact Officer Plussa. Each time, although with growing reluctance, the judge would grant the requested continuance and order Danny to return at a later date. Presumably, the public defender would have his ducks in a row by that time. It never happened.

The one bright spot in this legal merrygo round was the assignment of the case to Collier County Circuit Judge Janeice Martin, who treats all defendants with courtesy and respect, and does her utmost to help resolve their cases. I have seen her interactions with dozens of defendants and have always come away grateful that the judiciary includes such people as her.

The year before, on October 6, 2016, in a similar case, Judge Martin went to great lengths to give Danny an opportunity to register his boat, the Fish Camp and thus save his home. (See “This Judge Has a Big Heart,” October 27, 2016, at I know that she spent hours researching the issues in that case. This time around, Judge Martin was finally able to resolve Danny’s case with some resolute and adroit maneuvers. It would place her squarely in my own pantheon of great judges whom I had observed in action. As a lawyer and FBI agent I have had many such up close and personal observations. None surpasses Judge Martin.

First, the lawyer, who had been representing Danny, suddenly disappeared from Judge Martin’s courtroom and was replaced by another. As Danny’s lawyer kept asking for continuances, Judge Martin’s frustration was becoming palpable. However, just as she treats the defendants with respect, she does the same for lawyers that appear before her. Everyone has their limits however and in September a new public defender began appearing on Danny’s behalf.

Danny’s new public defender was Diana Cabili, a pert, capable lawyer who obviously took her job dead seriously. Judge Martin had previously praised Cabili in court and hinted that she would be taking over Danny’s case. Cabili got right to work. In short order, she arranged for the deposition of Officer Plussa, immediately sending the results over to the state attorney’s office. As a result, on October 2, all charges were dismissed. Cabili had quickly demonstrated how a good lawyer could have disposed of this case at the outset. Danny felt vindicated and was home free. Or was he?

On August 15, Plussa had issued two additional citations concerning a storage scow tied to Danny’s boat. The 15-foot scow was being used by Danny to grow his potted plant seedlings and store some odds and ends, including a barrel to soak his dirty clothes in. It had no motor and was kept tied to the side of the boat, the Fish Camp, on which he lived. Danny was cited for having no navigation lights on the scow and for failure to display a registration decal. Now on October 12, Danny was back in court, standing before Judge Martin to answer these new charges.

“We can’t resolve this case without Officer Plussa being here,” the judge told him, “I’m afraid you’re going to have to come back in a couple weeks.” Danny visibly slumped and could do nothing but shake his head. He would have to come back for a tenth time.

And then, Judge Martin, perhaps on an impulse, perhaps not, asked Danny to approach the bench. “I’m going to try to call Officer Plussa right now,” she said producing a land line phone, “Let’s see if we can work this out.” Plussa was quick to answer the call. “OK (that is her favorite word)” the judge told Plussa, “We are in court with Danny Mootispaw, and I’m going to put this on speaker phone.” Now, Danny, the bailiffs, the clerks, the court reporter, Danny’s lawyer the state attorney, and everyone else in the courtroom would all be privy to Officer Plussa’s theory of the case. “When and how do you intend to proceed [on your latest citations]?” the judge asked. Having had his first group of charges thrown out, Plussa was now to make what amounted to a de facto court appearance on the second charges. One can only imagine his alarm and surprise at this turn of events. “Well, I’ve probably put Mr. Mootispaw through enough,” Plussa said, “I guess I won’t pursue this any further.” “Does this mean that you are agreeing to dismissal of the citations?” the judge pressed. “Yes, your honor” was the weak reply.

Thus ended Danny’s six-month nightmare of nonstop court appearances. Against all odds, this remarkable and innovative maneuver by the conscientious and justice seeking Judge Martin, had resolved the situation in a manner which was satisfactory to both parties. King Solomon would have been proud. I have previously referred to her as the judge with a big heart. I would add, that she is also one who in every case, of the many that I have witnessed, goes to great lengths to see that all who appear before her, get their day in court.

Barry was a practicing attorney before he worked as a Special Agent of the FBI for 31 years. Barry worked for several government agencies another ten years before retiring to Goodland in 2006. Barry is presently the Secretary of the Goodland Civic Association.

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