Op-Ed

Court can use reason in sex-on-beach case

CARLTON
CARLTON

You can see it on YouTube in all its dubious glory, a couple appearing to couple on their towel on the sugary sands of busy Bradenton Beach.

What a shocked beach-goer’s cellphone captured Elissa Alvarez and Jose Caballero doing in broad daylight that balmy Sunday last July definitely makes them unlikely martyrs for a legal system gone astray.

But aside from the salaciousness in this, isn’t there room for some sensibility here? Should their way-too-public physical act — inappropriate, grossly distasteful and definitely deserving of some official punishment — send them to prison, maybe for years? For longer than people have gotten for driving drunk and killing someone, and in a world where Debra Lafave didn’t do a day for sex with a teenage student?

Would it be justice to label them both registered sex offenders for the rest of their lives — a designation with deep repercussions intended to protect us from rapists and child molesters?

Florida’s now-infamous sex-on-the-beach case has gotten attention from Today to Nancy Grace, all a-howl at the outrage perpetrated on decent beach-going citizens everywhere. Naturally, it went viral — there’s video.

According to published reports and witness accounts, Alvarez, a 20-year-old dental assistant, and Caballero, a 40-year-old stone worker and personal trainer, appeared to have sex on the beach that day, take a swim, fall asleep, and have sex on the populated beach again. And, OK, ick. Somebody called 911.

Notably, the 12th Judicial Circuit’s state attorney himself, Ed Brodsky, acted as co-counsel, even with, presumably, actual murder trials and such going on in other courtrooms. Prosecutors wanted to make clear what won’t be tolerated on Manatee County’s highly touted beaches.

A woman testified that her 3-year-old granddaughter asked what the two (him in a Speedo, her in a bikini) were doing. “I redirected her, and we looked at seashells,” the grandmother reported, which made me like this woman.

Anyway, it was no surprise a jury took a mere 15 minutes to convict them of a lewd and lascivious act.

Prosecutors did make plea offers beforehand: prison for Caballero, who has a previous cocaine conviction, and jail time for Alvarez, who has no record. They agreed to drop the sex-offender designation. The accused opted for trial. Both could faced up to 15 years in prison and that sex offender designation, which would affect what jobs they hold and even where they live for the rest of their lives.

And are these really the hardened criminals we want to pay to house behind bars?

Their attorney, Ronald Kurpiers, says he believes in the sex offender statute “for the people who deserve it.” But he does not believe what these two were convicted of is what the Legislature had in mind.

The judge could opt for probation. (With, if I may suggest, lots of community service cleaning up the public beach.)

Prosecutor Anthony Dafonseca said his office decided not to ask that Caballero be sentenced as a repeat offender, which would have likely guaranteed him the maximum prison time. They have not yet determined what sentences they will request, he told me last week. [Brodsky said he would not seek the maximum 15 years.]

For the record, this is a state attorney’s office capable of reason. A few years ago, two high school students set their ROTC instructor’s SUV on fire, an act that could have ignited his home with his children inside. They got house arrest, probation, public service hours and restitution costs — which sounds to me like punishment plus a chance of redemption for being felony stupid.

Alvarez and Caballero now wait in jail for their sentencing before Judge Gilbert Smith. The date hasn’t been set. But maybe even in the salacious case of sex on the beach, we'll see some reason in the court.

Sue Carlton is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.

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