Was PFD arrest a case of culture clash?

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A French sailor is jailed for not having a PFD in his dinghy as he rowed to his boat from shore

A French sailor is jailed for not having a PFD in his dinghy as he rowed to his boat from shore

The police in South Carolina take life jackets very seriously. Ask Olivier Theodore, a hapless Frenchman who spent a night in jail because he never quite got it: In South Carolina, there are no slaps on the wrist for PFD violations. They throw the book at you.

Yet Theodore thinks he might have been singled out — for reasons he still isn’t sure of. Could it have been his thick French accent, his gypsy lifestyle, his body language (he says he was “very angry”)? Maybe it was Theodore’s undisguised displeasure when the officer’s boat, tied up alongside his 55-foot motorsailer, started banging against the yacht’s davits. Or was it possibly Theodore’s impertinence in asking (arguing?) that the officer give him a warning ticket. After all, he and his wife were on a tight cruising budget. They were just rowing their dinghy from the dock to their anchored boat, a distance of no more than 500 feet. And what good is it anyway to carry a life jacket in a dinghy without wearing it? They had life jackets. They just weren’t on the dinghy. They were on the motorsailer, Movana III.

Not good enough, says Sgt. Steven T. Everhart, of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, who stopped the Theodores in the early afternoon of Sept. 19 as they rowed a load of groceries to their boat in a popular anchorage on Georgetown’s SampitRiver. And it wasn’t harassment, he says.

“It was the fact they were two people on a small vessel, and they didn’t have any life jackets. We have zero tolerance on life jackets here,” says Everhart, who spoke to Soundings in a telephone interview. If you don’t carry life jackets on your boat — readily accessible, one for every person — you get ticketed. No warnings. That’s the policy.

Coincidentally, Everhart came upon the Theodores — sans PFDs — while helping Georgetown sheriff’s deputies search for a man who had fallen overboard from a sailboat. Contacted later, Everhart was on the water again, searching for a fisherman who had fallen off his boat. Neither man had been wearing a life jacket. “Our agencydoesn’t take insufficient PFDs as a small thing,” he says, a policy confirmed by Lt. Robert McCullough, a DNR spokesman in Columbia.

As McCullough spoke to Soundings in late November, the DNR had been searching for three suspected drowning victims who had fallen overboard. “One we’ve recovered,” he says. “Two we’re looking for. If they all had been wearing life jackets, we wouldn’t be looking for a soul.”

Theodore, a 59-year-old sailor and adventurer, has operated businesses importing construction equipment and materials in Cameroon, Gabon and Nigeria, and has lived in Brazil, Venezuela and Nova Scotia. He has owned five boats and has cruised tens of thousands of miles — from Cameroon to Spain, England to Gabon, Africa to Brazil to the Grenadines and Nova Scotia, a half-dozen times between Nova Scotia and Trinidad. Semiretired now, he cruises extensively in his plywood-and-epoxy motorsailer, home-built eight years ago in New Bern, N.C. He had been anchored on the Sampit for several months, waiting out hurricane season before cruising to Honduras and Panama.

If Theodore had reason to believe he’d been caught in an on-water version of a small-town speed trap, he was even more convinced when Everhart told him he’d have to pay a bond equal to the amount of the $105 ticket right there — on the spot. Now the Theodores wondered if this was an old-fashioned shakedown. His wife advised him not to pay. He told Everhart he didn’t have the cash.

Everhart says — and McCullough confirms — that in South Carolina marine police must order out-of-state boaters to pay a bond when ticketed to make sure they don’t get away without either paying the fine or fighting the ticket in court after they leave the state. The officer takes the cash and puts it in an envelope, gives the boater a receipt, and turns the envelope over to the court. If the boater appears for his court date and beats the ticket, he or she gets the bond back.

Everhart says the choice is clear: Pay the bond or go to jail. Theodore says he couldn’t believe this was happening over a PFD violation, but as tensions rose and the exchanges became more heated, he decided to take the ticket and pay bond. He wasn’t making any headway with Everhart. “I gave him my Gold Visa card from Wachovia,” says Theodore, who spoke with Soundings in West Palm Beach, Fla. “He said, ‘No. I want the cash.’ ” Theodore said he’d have to go to an ATM.

Theodore and Everhart both allege the other forced an escalation of what was essentially a safety boarding. Theodore says Everhart manhandled him — twisted his arm when he tried to go below and make a cell phone call to advise friends that he might be late for dinner while he sorted this problem out — and “needlessly” handcuffed him.

According to Everhart’s complaint, Theodore became “very angry” about the PFD ticket and “verbally abusive,” calling him among other things a “redneck” when Everhart ordered him to get in the patrol boat and go ashore with him — orders Everhart says Theodore repeatedly ignored until he handcuffed him. Then he took Theodore to shore, where, according to Everhart, Theodore threatened a second officer, Steven Pop, whom he had called for assistance.

Theodore denies the charges. “I’ve lived in many countries,” he says. “I’m used to dealing with different police. I don’t lose my temper.”

Theodore says he thought Everhart was taking him ashore so he could go the ATM and pay the bond. Instead, Everhart handed Theodore over to Pop, who asked him a few questions, then took him to the Georgetown Detention Facility and booked him not only for the PFD violation but for failure to cooperate with police.

“Only twice in my career have I written up someone for failure to cooperate,” Everhart says. “The other one was intoxicated and ran over me and broke my elbow. It’s not something I charge people with. … But you don’t threaten officers. You don’t put them in a situation where they feel that the situation is getting out of hand.”

Theodore tried to bond out of jail with his credit card, but jailers first told him they couldn’t take a credit card. They later said they could, but by that time the cashier had gone home. Theodore had to spend the night in jail and bond out the next morning. “My wife was worried where I was,” he says. “She was afraid.”

Angry and facing forfeiture of $2,965 in bond, Theodore hired an attorney who negotiated the charges down to the PFD violation. Total cost to the Frenchman: $105 for the ticket, $1,500 for the attorney.

Theodore believes he was treated badly because he is French and isn’t a local. He didn’t have a lawyer in town, no friends. “This could have happened to an American,” he says. “But I don’t think [the police] would have treated you like they treated me. You could have called your lawyer.”

Everhart says Theodore just refused to accept that they take PFDs very seriously in South Carolina.