Berry pickers show disregard for safety, law

OKEECHOBEE — It’s that time of year again when people are willing to brave scorching heat, wasp stings, mosquito bites and rattlesnake strikes just to fill their buckets with saw palmetto berries.

These people are also willing to go to jail just so they can make a little more than $1 a pound when they sell the berries.

And because these folks are willing to brave nature and the law, it also means a lot more work for deputies with the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO).

From Friday, Aug. 5, through Monday, Aug. 8, deputies responded to 14 trespassing cases in which berry pickers were going onto someone else’s property without permission. In one case, three pickers were run off county-owned property at the Agri-Civic Center.

Although they were misdemeanor charges, three berry pickers have also been arrested. Two of those were charged with trespassing, and one was charged with resisting a law enforcement officer without violence after he swam across a canal in an ill-fated attempt to avoid arrest.

That 24-year-old man’s wife was already in custody when he exited the canal and found a deputy waiting for him.

Two more men were arrested Aug. 5 for picking berries next to a man’s home on N.E. 26th Avenue, and then jumping a fence to a pasture owned by the same man to continue picking.

Both young men were booked into the Okeechobee County Jail on a misdemeanor charge of trespassing. One man has been released on bond, while the other remains incarcerated.

The berries — which can be sold for $1.50 to $3 a pound, depending on their demand — have been around for centuries and used for a number of herbal remedies.

The Mayans crushed the berries and drank them as a tonic. The Seminoles used them as an antiseptic, and some people in the Far East believe the berries are a powerful aphrodisiac.

Saw palmetto berries grow wild in the Southeast — mainly, in Florida and Georgia — and have been picked and used to promote prostate health by strengthening the bladder since the late 1800s.

When contacted, a spokesman for the Okeechobee City Police Department (OCPD) said that agency hasn’t had the first complaint about trespassing berry pickers this year.

But, that’s not the case for the sheriff’s office.

Complaints about trespassing berry pickers started lighting up the phones at the OCSO a little more than a week ago. The berry season starts in August and ends in September.

“It seems like we’re having more (complaints) this year,” said OCSO public information officer Michele Bell.

She said even she has had to deal with the picker’s utter disregard for the law, as well as their own safety.

Last Friday afternoon, Aug. 5, as she was heading home from work she was driving north and had just passed Okeechobee High School when a car suddenly stopped in the outside lane.

“It was just about 100 yards or so from the high school entrance about 5 p.m.

She (the driver) stopped in the middle of the road and her flashers were going. So, I slowed down. I thought she had a flat tire or something,” said Mrs. Bell. “But, she got out of her car and opened the trunk. A man then came running out (from some underbrush) and threw bags of berries into the trunk. He had a bag in each hand. There were still some bags on the side of the road, so she went to get them.”

The woman tossed those bags into the trunk and the couple drove away.

All this in a high-traffic area.

“And, we’ve still got a month to go,” sighed Mrs. Bell.

As is the case with so many berry pickers, the man who came running out from the underbrush Friday was no doubt trespassing on someone else’s property.

According to the Florida statutes trespassing is a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $500.

As for the rights of the property owner, it depends on whether or not the property is properly posted; how the property is fenced; and/of if the land is cultivated.

To be properly fenced, state law requires the land to be “… enclosed by a fence of substantial construction.” That fence can be made of wire, logs, rails, iron or any other material. The fence must be at least 3 feet in height.

Property lines bordered by water do not have to be fenced.

State law also requires signs to be placed no more than 500 feet apart and at each corner of the boundaries. The words “No Trespassing” must not be less than 2 inches in height on the signs, and the signs must display the name of the owner, lessee or occupant of the property.

The signs must also be placed in such a position that they can be clearly seen from outside the boundary line.

Signs can also be painted on trees or posts as long as they are painted in an international orange color and have the words “No Trespassing” stenciled on them in letters no less than 2 inches in height and 1 inch wide — either vertically or horizontally.

A couple of other things that landowners should remember: First, the landowner cannot shoot at the interloper because they do not have the right to use deadly force; and second, the landowner cannot make a legal citizen’s arrest because the violation is only a misdemeanor.

But the best thing for pickers, offered Mrs. Bell, is simply not to trespass.

“If you want to pick the berries, go knock on the door and ask if you can pick the berries,” she said.

Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News

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