Pasco County deputies are cracking down on convenience stores selling drug paraphernalia without proper signage, and the civil citations handed out pack a heavy punch.
Over the past two weeks, three stores were fined for violating a county ordinance that requires a sign barring juveniles from entering the business if drug paraphernalia is for sale. At $500 per violation, and each item considered a violation, two stores together face more than $200,000 in civil fines.
The fines are so high that one of store managers said it might force the store out of business. Both stores plan to appeal the citations.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office said the busts are part of a concerted effort to beef up enforcement on places found violating the ordinance, established in 2012. According to that ordinance, any business selling drug paraphernalia must display a sign prohibiting minors from entering without a parent or guardian.
The ordinance was specifically passed to address the growing concern at the time over illicit synthetic drugs and misbranded drugs, such as products referred to as "spice" and "bath salts," according to the county. At that same time, it was also determined that drug paraphernalia were being sold openly at some convenience stores without any regulation.
The signs must be approved by the county. The standard language reads: "Drug paraphernalia located inside. No person under 18 years of age may enter unless accompanied by his/her parent or legal guardian."
Stores are allowed to sell drug paraphernalia with the proper signs. However, if those items are found with drugs, or if the items tests positive for drugs, then more serious charges can apply.
Cpl. Chris Davila said the recent stepped-up enforcement was spurred by citizen complaints and deputies going into stores while on patrol.
"In the past, we have cited a few different stores, but it's getting to the point where it needed to be addressed," said Davila, who oversees code enforcement.
A Citgo station in Trilby faces $56,018 in fines after deputies went to the store on Sept. 25 and said the clerk had drug paraphernalia without the proper signs. Investigators confiscated 112 items, which included pipes used to smoke crack cocaine and methamphetamine, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Citgo manager Jay James said the store didn't know about the ordinance and the Sheriff's Office didn't warn them.
According to the Sheriff's Office, a tip led deputies to visit the station.
"They just came in with no warning, and now the publicity is ruining our business," James said.
He said people assumed the store was selling drugs after customers saw news reports about the violation.
Deputies said another convenience store — the Sunoco at 22911 State Road 54 — was also found in violation. The business racked up 370 violations and faces $185,000 in fines, according to a Sheriff's Office Facebook post.
The Sunoco now has two signs posted in its window.
Going forward, Davila said, deputies will check stores every day for compliance. By last week, a department spokesperson said three citations had been issued and more than 50 businesses had been inspected.
Some Facebook users commented about the Citgo bust on the Sheriff's Office Facebook page, questioning how a lack of signage could lead to a fine so high.
One person suspected that the county was trying to recoup some of the overtime pay it incurred during Hurricane Irma.
But the fines aren't up to the Sheriff's Office.
"We don't decide what the fine is, so we're just abiding by the ordinance," Davila said. "The ordinance shows that each item is a violation."
When a citation is issued, a business owner must appear in County Court and has the option to plead guilty or innocent, settle or seek a trial.
For James at Citgo, appealing the citation is his only option.
"Where the hell are we going to get $56,000?" he asked. "I don't think we'll survive if we have to pay it."