Hours after a judge ordered that Terri Schiavo was not to be removed from her hospice, a team of state agents was “en route” to seize her and have her feeding tube reinserted — but the agents stopped short when local police told them they intended to enforce the judge’s order, The Herald has learned. Agents of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement told police in Pinellas Park, the small town where Schiavo lies at Hospice House Woodside, on Thursday that they were on the way to take her to a hospital to resume her feeding.
For a brief period, local police, who have officers at the hospice to keep protesters out, prepared for what sources called “a showdown.”
In the end, the squad from the FDLE and the Department of Children & Families backed down, apparently concerned about confronting local police outside the hospice.
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“We told them that unless they had the judge with them when they came, they were not going to get in,” said a source with the local police.
“The FDLE called to say they were en route to the scene,” said an official with the city police who requested anonymity. “When the sheriff’s department and our department told them they could not enforce their order, they backed off.”
The incident, known only to a few, underscores the intense emotion and murky legal terrain that the Schiavo case has created. It also shows that agencies answering directly to Gov. Jeb Bush had planned to use a wrinkle in Florida law that would have allowed them to legally get around the judge’s order. The exception in the law allows public agencies to freeze a judge’s order whenever an agency appeals it.
Participants in the high-stakes test of wills, who spoke with The Herald on the condition of anonymity, said they believed the standoff could ultimately have led to a constitutional crisis and a confrontation between dueling lawmen.
“There were two sets of law enforcement officers facing off, waiting for the other to blink,” said one official with knowledge of Thursday morning’s activities.
In jest, one official said local police discussed “whether we had enough officers to hold off the National Guard.”
“It was kind of a showdown on the part of the locals and the state police,” the official said. “It it was not too long after that Jeb Bush was on TV saying that, evidently, he doesn’t have as much authority as people think.”
State officials on Friday vigorously denied the notion that any “showdown” occurred.
“DCF directed no such action,” said agency spokeswoman Zoraya Suarez.
Said Bush spokesman Jacob DiPietre: “There was no showdown. We were ready to go. We didn’t want to break the law. There was a process in place and we were following the process. The judge had an order and we were following the order.”
Tim Caddell, a spokesman for the city of Pinellas Park, declined to discuss Thursday’s events.
SHELTER FOR SCHIAVO
The developments that set Thursday morning’s events in motion began the previous afternoon, when the governor and DCF chief Lucy Hadi held an impromptu news conference to announce they were considering sheltering Schiavo under the state’s adult protection law. DCF has been besieged, officials say, by thousands of calls alleging Schiavo is the victim of abuse or neglect.
Alerted by the Bush administration that Schiavo might be on her way to their facility, officials at Morton Plant Hospital went to court themselves Wednesday, asking Circuit Judge George Greer, who ordered the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube last week, what to do.
“It’s an extraordinary situation,” said Beth Hardy, a hospital spokeswoman. “I don’t think any of us has seen anything like it. Ever.”
Greer signed an order Wednesday afternoon forbidding DCF from “taking possession of Theresa Marie Schiavo or removing her” from the hospice. He directed “each and every and singular sheriff of the state of Florida” to enforce his order.
But Thursday, at 8:15 a.m., DCF lawyers appealed Greer’s order to judges at the Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland.
That created the window of time to seize Schiavo. When DCF filed its appeal, it effectively froze the judge’s Wednesday order. It took nearly three hours before the judge found out and canceled the automatic stay, shortly before 11 a.m.
Administrators of the 72-bed hospice, who have endured a withering siege of their facility by protesters since Greer ordered Schiavo’s feeding tube removed on March 18, declined to discuss Thursday morning’s events in any detail.
“I don’t really know, or pretend to know, the specifics of what is going on behind the scenes,” said Mike Bell, a spokesman for Hospice of the Florida Suncoast, which operates Woodside.
According to sources, DCF intended to take Schiavo to Morton Plant Hospital, where her feeding tube had been reinserted in 2003 following a previous judicial order allowing its removal. But hospice officials were aware that the hospital was not likely to perform surgery to reinsert the tube without an order from Greer.
“People knew that taking [Schiavo] did not equate with immediate reinsertion of the feeding tube,” a source said. “Hospital officials were working with their legal counsel and their advisors, trying to figure out which order superseded which, and what action they should take.”
Hardy, the hospital spokeswoman, said she does not believe the hospital was made aware Thursday morning that DCF and state police planned to bring Schiavo in. “We were not aware of that three-hour period,” she said. “It’s not a discussion we even had, really.”
George Felos, Michael Schiavo’s attorney, said he does not think DCF officials knew of the window of opportunity they had created until well after they filed their appeal.
“Frankly, I don’t believe when they filed their notice of appeal they realized that that gave them an automatic stay,” Felos said. “When we filed our motion to vacate the automatic stay . . . they realized they had a short window of opportunity and they wanted to extend that as long as they could.
“I believe that as soon as DCF knew they had an opportunity, they were mobilizing to take advantage of it, without a doubt.”
The Florida Rules of Appellate Procedure say that public agencies get an automatic stay of a judge’s order when the agency files an appeal of that order.
RULE 9.310.(2) STAY PENDING REVIEW
Public bodies; public officers. The timely filing of a notice shall automatically operate as a stay pending review . . . when the state, any public officer in an official capacity, board, commission or other public body seeks review. . . . On motion, the lower tribunal or the court may extend a stay, impose any lawful conditions or vacate the stay.