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A Deadly Mix of Amendments?

October 3rd, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
Florida voters are faced with choices to give themselves bigger property tax breaks while at the same time making it harder for the state to raise taxes, but the League of Women Voters and others say the combination could be deadly for the state’s finances.
Amendment 5 would require a 2/3 vote from future state lawmakers to raise any tax or fee.
Governor Rick Scott, who counts 80+ tax cuts under his tenure, asked for the tax limitation during his last State of the State address.
“It will force leaders to contemplate living within their means, rather than taking the easy way out and just sticking it to the public,” said Scott.
The League of Women Voters argues that there is no reason to tie the hands of future leaders.
“Today, Flordia spends less than 48 other states on our educational system. This would just make that worse,” said Teri Cleeland with the League.
Supporting the amendment, the Florida Chamber says cutting taxes has created jobs.
“And, it’s had great outcomes, right? We’ve had a state that’s created one point five million private sector jobs because we’ve produced one of the best tax climates in the country,” said David Hart with the Chamber of Commerce.
While Amendment 5 makes it harder to raise taxes in the future, Amendment 1 gives homeowners a bigger tax break.
Karen Woodall with the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy says passing both would be a ‘double whammy’.
“You restrict local governments from their ability to fund  things that are libraries, parks, local issues, and then you are going to make it harder to get the legislature to fill in those gaps,” said Woodall.
Florida’s constitution already prohibits a state income tax, and raising the Corporate Income Tax requires a 3/5 vote, so tax limitations aren’t new to the Constitution.
Governor Rick Scott says his tax cuts amount to more than $7.5 billion.
Advocates say most of those cuts went to the wealthy, not everyday Floridians.

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Democrats Requesting More Mail-In-Ballots than Republicans

October 3rd, 2018 by Jake Stofan
For the first time since Florida became a two party state, more Democrats than Republicans are asking to cast their ballot through the postal service.
The general election is officially underway, with 2.5 million mail-in-ballots shipping out to voters through the state.
“It’s a very long ballot. We don’t want to see lines like have been seen in the past,” said Leon County Elections Supervisor Mark Earley. “So that’s why we’re encouraging people to vote ahead of time.”
Historically, Republicans have requested more mail in ballots than Democrats, outnumbering them by 128,000 in 2014 and 60,000 in 2016, but this year there’s been a shift.
“My party has done a pretty good job of telling folks it’s safe to vote. People have gotten comfortable with the idea,” said Democratic strategist, Steve Schale.
24,000 more Democrats have asked for a vote by mail ballot than Republicans.
“It’s great to see my party with a lead in the absentee requests, but it doesn’t really mean much unless people return their ballots,” said Schale.
The increase could be an indication of a high Democratic voter turnout in November, but Republicans say it may just be a voter shift.
“It’s an exchange of when they vote. They’re voting early and when you talk about vote by mail requests, you’re not also talking about turnout either,” said Evan Power, Assistant Treasurer for the Republican Party of Florida.
While Democrats may have requested more ballots, Republicans are traditionally  better at casting and returning them.
“So in 2014 and in 2016, Democrats left 70,000 more ballots on their kitchen table than Republicans,” said Schale. “That in a race like this could be the margin of winning or losing.”
Republicans say their vote-by-Mail numbers haven’t been growing as much as Democrat’s in recent years, simply because many of their voters prefer to show up at polls on Election Day.
Military and overseas ballots went out ten days ago.
As of 10 Am Wednesday morning, the Secretary of State reported 2,030 ballots had been cast by Republicans and only 1,324 for Democrats.

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Judicial Resignations Scrutinized

October 2nd, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
Can circuit judges ensure that their successors are appointed instead of elected?
That’s was the question before the Florida Supreme Court Tuesday.
At least some members of the court aren’t happy over how some judges are gaming the system.
In May, Attorney David Trotti filed the paperwork and paid a $5,200 fee to run for what he thought was a vacant circuit judgeship in the Jacksonville area.
“Went, filed my paperwork. They accepted it. They Qualified me. Listed me as qualified candidate, then they removed me subsequently,” said Trotti.
Unknown to Trotti and the Secretary of State, who accepted the paperwork, the current judge, Robert Foster, had resigned, saying he would leave office three days early.
Now the Supreme Court must decide if the Governor or voters fill the vacancy.
“The trial judge says this was an artificial vacancy. I think that’s a good way to put it,” said Trotti’s attorney, Phil Padovano.
Previous rulings have held when a judgeship becomes vacant before the end of the term, the Governor appoints, but Justices recognized this case was different.
“My problem is with the charade that’s being played,” said Justice Fred Lewis. “He’s not really resigning. To me it’s an affront to the people of Florida.”
One option for the court is to decide a three-day resignation is playing politics, violating judicial ethics.
Afterward, Trotti’s lawyer called the judges actions a travesty.
“To have judges acting like little kings and queens, deciding how, you know, the successors are going to be picked. I don’t think that’s appropriate,” said Padovano.
If the court were to rule in David Trotti’s favor, voters still wouldn’t get a say.
Trotti was the only one Who qualified, making him the winner if there is an election.
The Lawyer for Governor Rick Scott urged the jurists to allow the Governor to make the appointment, arguing previous rulings from the court sided with the Governor.

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Women’s Advocates Ask Rubio to Vote Against Kavanaugh Confirmation

October 2nd, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Women’s advocacy groups were in the State’s Capitol Tuesday morning, asking Senator Marco Rubio to vote against Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The National Organization for Women and the Progressive Council of North Florida delivered a letter to Senator Marco Rubio’s office, urging the Senator to consider the findings of a pending FBI investigation into the sexual assault allegations facing Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
“We want Senator Rubio to open his mind… and to trust women,” said Barbara DeVane with the National Organization for Women.
“He [Rubio] says that without any corroborating evidence that it’s hard for the Senator to vote against him [Kavanaugh],” said Senator Rubio’s Capital Area Regional Director Lance Watson.
Rubio’s vote is important because Republicans outnumber Democrats 51 to 49 in the US senate.
“It’s time to put party affiliation aside and stand for the people of this country,” said Dot Inman-Johnson with the Progressive Leadership Council of North Florida.
The groups say Kavanaugh’s demeanor during the Senate hearings make him unfit for the Supreme Court.
“He is not temperamentally qualified,” said Johnson.
Whether the sexual assault claims brought by Kavanaugh’s accusers ultimately stop his confirmation, groups that help victims of sexual assault say the public discussion has given a voice to the voiceless.
Meg Baldwin is the Executive Director of the Refuge House.
She says the crisis center’s sexual assault hotline has received more calls this September than in previous years, a trend that’s been seen nationally as well.
“Although this can be a very painful moment for survivors, we know too that any time a survivor reaches out for help, that help can really change the course of the next years and decades of her life,” said Baldwin.
Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson says he’ll be voting against Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
If you are a victim of sexual assault and are seeking help, you can call the Florida Council against Sexual Violence at 850-297-2000 to be connected with your local crisis center.

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Advertising Constitutional Amendments Cost Taxpayers $1 Million

October 1st, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
As voters prepare to weigh in on a dozen constitutional amendments, taxpayers here in Florida spent $1 million advertising the ballot language.
The state had little choice in spending the money.
From one end of Florida to the other, virtually every newspaper of record got a piece of a $1 million ad buy from the state.
The ads detail all 12 constitutional amendments on the November ballot.
“Well there’s a real issue whether people have ever read those right,” said FSU Political Scientist, Dr. Carol Weissert.
The 12 amendments were so long that it took two pages to print everything in English, and another two full pages in Spanish.
“It made a lot more sense when news papers were read more frequently, but it makes sense these days to save that money and do something online to make it available,” said Weissert.
Newspapers nearly lost the legal ad business in 2011.
Lawmakers wanted it all on a government web site, but newspapers fought back.
“It’s the most central repository of information really that we have in a community. Having that third party make sure that the information is published correctly I think provides a level of assurance that the public finds important,” said Dean Ridings, President of the Florida Press Association.
Unlike regular legal ads for local governments, the constitution itself requires the amendment’s wording be printed in the papers.
Changing the printing requirement would require lawmakers to put an amendment on the ballot, but few lawmakers want to anger their hometown paper.
The million dollars spent by the state is small potatoes in an 89 billion dollar budget, but as lawmakers like to say, pretty soon it starts to add up to real money.
In 2012, lawmakers did require newspapers publishing legal notices to also post the notices on their website at no additional charge.

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Florida Pig Rescue Out of Hand, In Need of Help

October 1st, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Animal advocacy groups are responding to an out of control herd of pot bellied pigs near the state’s capital.
They say it’s a case of a person with good intentions getting in over their heads.
Christal Ellard works with Avalon Mini Pigs – Animal Allies Florida.
The group was contacted by the owner of the herd to help get the swine under control.
It’s is estimated their numbers have grown to more than 200 pigs.
“We’re just trying to help stabilize everything,” said Ellard.
The owner asked to not be on camera.
“I think that he started off with a very good heart,” said Ellard.
He’d been adopting unwanted pigs in an attempt to rescue them.
Local donations helped offset the cost of feed, but the population has become too much for one person to handle.
“When they start breeding out of control you quickly end up with a lot more pigs than you can manage, considering they can give birth every four months,” said Ellard.
Rescuers each pig needs to be given a clean bill of health and be spayed and neutered before it can be adopted out, they estimate the cost per-pig will be about $400.
Another concern is the fact the pigs have been escaping from their pens, and roaming free through the surrounding woods, which could potentially create a ferrel population.
“I’m not sure how that’s going to be handled,” said Ellard.
Clean up of the situation will likely take weeks.
Shawn and rescuers are asking for veterinarians’ to volunteer to help spay and neuter the animals.
They say they’re currently looking into partnerships with universities both in and out of state to help with the situation.
Advocates say if you want to help you can make donations to Avalon Mini Pigs – Animal Allies Florida.
The owner of the rescue also says anyone looking to adopt the pigs or volunteer can e-mail him at shawn@dinosoil.com.
He says you can also help purchase products and supplies for his rescue by contacting the Madison Farmer’s Co-Op.

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Federal Conservation Fund Set to Expire Sunday

September 28th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
A federal program that has provided billions of dollars for land and water conservation for more than half a century is set to expire on Sunday, but environmental groups in Florida are fighting for Congress to keep the program alive.
The Federal Land and Water Conservation fund was created in 1964.
Funded by taxes on offshore oil drilling, it’s provided billions of dollars for the acquisition and maintenance of environmental lands.
“What better way to use those monies, than to actually protect some of our treasured national areas,” said Executive Director of Florida Conservation Voters, Aliki Moncrief.
But the program is set to expire this Sunday. Environmental groups say if that happens, Florida will in loose a valuable funding source, which has provided more than $1 billion to the state.
“We would see a diminution of funding for a lot of places that people enjoy today,” said Manley Fuller, President of the Florida Wildlife Federation.
In Florida, the economy is tied to the environment.
“We have an almost $60 billion outdoor recreation industry. A lot of that is tied to protecting these special areas,” said Moncrief.
Large parks like the Everglades or Osceola National Forrest receive funds through the program, but the fund also helps purchase land for and maintain local recreational parks throughout the state.
“They brag that the Land and Water Conservation Fund during the course of its lifetime has funded at least one park in every county in the country,” said Executive Director of Audubon Florida Julie Wraithmell.
With the attention of Congress heavily focused on the Supreme Court Confirmation process, it’s likely the fund will not be renewed before the Sunday deadline.
However Congress can reauthorize the program.
Environmental groups hope to see the fund re-enacted after the election in November.
In the meantime, they’re encouraging the public to contact their representatives.

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New Penalties for Animal Abusers Take Effect Monday

September 27th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
A new law taking effect Monday will make it more likely animal abusers do jail time.
It also requires animal shelters get lost pets back to their owners after a disaster.
A police body cam video shot in 2017 showed the public a case of animal abuse that occurred in Daytona Beach.
A young Labrador Retriever named Ponce had been beaten to death.
“And the public outcry about the sentencing, or lack of, was massive,” said Kate MacFall with the Human Society.
The incident drew attention to the state’s relatively weak penalties for animal cruelty and spurred new Legislation to crack down on abusers.
“This shows us a lot about the courage of Floridians and what we’re capable of and how much we care about our pets,” said Jennifer Hobgood, Director of State Legislation for the ASPCA’s Southeastern Region.
The Legislature approved Ponce’s Law in March of 2018.
It raises aggravated animal cruelty from a level three to a level five offense.
“It’s easier and more appropriate at a level five to assign jail time,” said MacFall.
It also clarifies that judges can prohibit convicted abusers from owning or even having contact with animals.
“So if they are found having contact with animals during their probation it would be a violation of their probation,” said Hobgood. “They could go to jail.”
Tagged onto Ponce’s Law is another change, which establishes a set of procedures for animal shelters like this one to follow after a natural disaster to help reunite lost pets with their owners.
“Things like scanning for a microchip in a timely fashion and properly, checking for tags, calling identified owners of lost pets,” said Hobgood.
An educational campaign launches the same day the law goes into effect.
It’s goal is to spread word about Ponce’s Law to prosecutors, judges and law enforcement throughout the state.
The campaign kicks off in Ponce’s home Daytona Beach and is led by Debbie Dario, the Escambia County paralegal who spearheaded Ponce’s Law.

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Charges for Sheriff’s Deputy Accused of Planting Evidence Likely Months Away

September 27th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
It could be a month or more before charges are filed in the case of a North Florida Deputy accused of planting drugs on unsuspecting motorists.
In body-cam video released by the Jackson County Sheriff, Deputy Zachery Wester first tells Theresa Odom there was a problem with her brake lights.
Then he said a drug sniffing dog was on the way.
“Instead of doing that would you consent to a search of your vehicle,” Wester asked Odom in the video.
At about five minuets into the stop, Wester is already searching her car, holding what appears to be a baggie with a white substance in his left hand.
“The one that I saw was clear and the one I saw had  some still photos which confirmed what the video showed us,” said Glenn Hess, State Attorney of Florida’s 14th Judicial Circuit.
Presented with the find, Odom proclaims her innocence, as others did as well.
Over 250 cases involving the deputy were reviewed.
This week 49 cases were thrown out, bringing the total to 119.
The Deputy was fired but he has yet to be charged.
Hess says it could be a month or longer before anything happens.
“Until the investigation is completed, we don’t know what charges to file, and we don’t know how many charges to file,” said Hess.
Theresa Odom is free.
She declined to be interviewed for fear of jeopardizing the investigation, but she did allow this picture to be taken and in a lengthy conversation both on and off the record, she told us her tail lights never malfunctioned,
The Department of Law Enforcement, which is investigating this case says last year out of 85,606 law enforcement officers statewide, just 1,154 disciplinary cases were opened.

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Tallahassee Crime Rate Front and Center in Governor’s Race

September 26th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

The state ’s Republican Party doubled down Wednesday on the crime rate in the state capital, where the Democratic gubernatorial nominee is the Mayor.

Tallahassee has had the highest crime rate in Florida four years running.
The GOP is also pointing to this mailer from mayoral candidate Dustin Daniels, who is Gillum’s former chief of staff, suggesting Daniels blames Gillum for crime.
”And it’s just not correct,” said Daniels. ” All I have ever said is I believe that we need to invest in the programs he has put forward because they are shown to be working.”
However, residents of a north side neighborhood just blocks from the Mayors home were hit with at least a dozen car burglaries over the weekend.
Shots were also fired.
“Scared the hell out of me,” said resident Marti Hill.
Police have arrested two juveniles for the weekends crimes.
They seized six guns.
Tallahassee Reports, an alternative conservative newspaper is reporting that the city commission, of which Mayor Andrew Gillum is a member, refused police requests for more officers.
“As you look at the documents, they kept asking for help,” said reporter Steve Stewart. “Kept telling the City Commission we have a problem, and they never responded until it really got to a problem where it was gonna take years to correct.”
The City has since hired about 50 new officers.
Leon County Sheriff, Democrat Walt McNeil, took the GOP to task for it’s criticism, saying “The political fear mongering from his opponent is false, dangerous, and disrespectful to the law enforcement officers on the front lines fighting crime every day”.
McNeill was elected in 2016, blasting the high crime rate at the time.
While police say crime is at its lowest in five years, how the city ranks statewide is unknown.
Statewide crime rates for the first six months of the year are yet to be released.

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FWC Discounts Pollution in Red Tide Discussion

September 26th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has agreed to increase funding for red tide research and new fish hatcheries.
The current red tide bloom has been active for nearly a year.
In that time more than 1,200 fish kills have been reported to the FWC.
“Probably a lot more than that if people had reported everything,” said Fish and Wildlife Research Institute Director Gil McRae.
During their Wednesday meeting, commissioners were briefed on the outbreak and approved a $3.5 million budget request for 2019 to establish a red tide research center and task force.
“Our efforts need to be focused on recovery we need to continue and boost research and we need to continue to explore innovation,” said FWC Director Eric Sutton.
The commission says it will be experimenting in the field with a special clay from Asia, along with conducting lab research on other potential ways to combat the algae.
Environmentalists have suggested pollution and agricultural runoff may be factors in sustaining prolonged red tide blooms, but pollution was never mentioned in the meeting.
The commission instead reassured the public that the current bloom was a natural phenomenon.
Sutton said it was wrong of environmental groups to center the discussion around pollution.
“It means they don’t understand red tide, because to point to any one single individual or source is irresponsible,” said Sutton.
The commission suggested the extended bloom has likely been caused by abnormal weather patterns and iron brought into the Gulf by unusually high dust deposits from the African Sahara.
FWC Commissioners also agreed to extend a catch and release designation for red fish and snook in the counties most impacted by red tide through May 10th.
$1.2 million for red fish hatcheries was approved at the meeting to help replenish the populations after the blooms subside.

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Big Box Retailers Sue State, Reviving Whiskey and Wheaties Debate

September 25th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Walmart and Target are suing the state to accomplish what they’ve been unable to get for at least the last five years: The ability to sell alcohol by the bottle in their main stores.
The retailers are trying to accomplish through an administrative process what they couldn’t get from the Governor and State Lawmakers.
Big Box stores can only sell liquor if it’s separated by a wall from their main grocery shelves.
In 2017 they almost succeeded at tearing those walls down.
The so called ‘Whiskey and Wheaties’ bill was narrowly approved by lawmakers, but Governor Rick Scott soon vetoed the bill.
“I’ve had family members that have dealt with, had the challenge of alcoholism,” Scott said in a 2017 interview.
Now, Walmart and Target are trying a new strategy, arguing they should qualify for consumption on premises liquor licenses because many of their stores are licensed as restaurants.
To get a consumption on premises license, the law says liquor can only be sold alongside “items customarily sold in a restaurant”, but the statute doesn’t define those items.
Walmart and Target argue the list defined by agency rule making more than two decades ago is too narrow.
ABC Liquors lobbyist Scott Dick has fought the big box stores each year in the Legislature.
He believes the administrative challenge suggests the retailers are running out of options.
“Costco sells caskets. So caskets would be customarily sold in a restaurant. I mean it’s a far stretch,” said Dick.
Walmart and Target say the state arbitrarily enforces the existing rule, allowing companies like hotels to obtain consumption on premises licenses, despite selling items outside of the state’s own definition of items customarily sold in restaurants.
Will Hall represents the Florida Independent Spirits Association.
Hall says repealing the rule would create confusion for traditional liquor stores.
“They basically say anything in the world can fit the definition, I think that renders the statute meaningless. You can’t do that,” said Hall.
If the rule is stricken, not only would stores like Walmart and Target be allowed to sell liquor on their shelves, but they would also be allowed to sell beverages for customers to drink while they shop.

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No More Tipping Off Perps

September 24th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

It will soon be harder for child pornographers and abusers to know their internet activities are being investigated by law enforcement. A new law taking effect October first will keep internet providers from tipping off suspected perps.

It is the irony of all ironies. Big internet providers and cloud storage services find porn or child abuse, then tip off police. Wayne Ivey is the Sheriff of Brevard County., who says once they get a tip… “And then, before we could start delving into it, they (the ISP) would notify the perps because they were worried about being sued and stuff.”

It was his investigators who discovered and fought to close the loophole that allowed ISP to contact their customers under investigation.

“There’s going to be evidence that’s preserved as a result. Potentially victims will be saved as a result because come of these people actually have victims in their homes” says the Sheriff.

Clearwater Representative Chris Latvala told us in February the loophole was motivated by greed.

“These companies are more concerned with their trade secrets or their products than they are doing the right thing” said the sponsor of the legislation.

The Law enfprcement task force members who discovered the loophole were honored at this years Missing Children’s Day. Donna Uzell from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced their award  “The innovative and persistent work has resulted in a significant, on going contribution to the safety of countless children.”

We interviewed Sheriff after he just finished talking to his agents. “I was just telling them as we were taking the picture, I was telling the, each and every day you guys do amazing things. But what you’ve done here will save the lives of innocent children for decades and decades to come

Under the new law, internet provides can’t tell a perp they’re being investigated for 90 days. If police need more time, they can have that delay extended in 90 day increments.

The legislation is such a no-brainer,  it received a unanimous vote every step of the legislative process.

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Uber Driver Held Without Bail

September 24th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

An Uber driver accused of kidnapping a college student last week will remain in jail without bond for the time being. Medical staff told the judge at Destiny Green’s first appearance this morning that she  suffers from schizophrenia and stopped taking her medicine in January. Judge Nina Ashenafi Richardson ordered Green to remain in jail until she has resumed taking her medicine.

“It’s too early for this court to be comfortable releasing you, okay? There’ll have to be some more assurances that where you are, what your state of mind is, and how you’re going to be able to care for yourself, okay?”  Green appeared on closed circuit television.

Green’s public defended argued that Uber driver was not guilty of kidnaping, and only the false imprisonment charge she faces has any merit at all. The judge also ordered Green to not resume driving for hire until the case is resolved. Uber has already terminated Green.

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Suspect in Uber Kidnapping Had History of Strange Behavior

September 21st, 2018 by Jake Stofan
New information has come to light in the case of an Uber driver accused of kidnapping a college student in the state capital.
The female driver was ordered to under go psychological evaluation Friday, but the kidnapping incident isn’t the first time the female driver has acted strangely.
30-year-old Uber driver Destiny Green is charged with kidnapping St. Petersburg native Brooke Adkins, who is currently attending college in Tallahassee.
Police say Green picked up Adkins around 3 am on Wednesday to take her back to her apartment after a night out with friends.
“Miss Adkins, who was the victim, felt uncomfortable with what was going on and asked her to stop the car and let her out. Miss Green refused,” said Tallahassee Police Department PIO Damon Miller.
Unable to unlock the car door, Adkins rolled down the window and leapt out.
Adkins posted photos of her injuries on social media following the incident.
“We’re just lucky that she doesn’t have any life threatening injuries or basically worse of than she is right now,” said Miller.
After jumping from the window Adkins ran to a Walgreens where she waited for authorities to arrive.
“The good thing about this case is that with Uber the driver is identified and it also has the tag number and vehicle and everything,” said Miller.
Green was scheduled to make her first appearance in court Friday morning, but the arraignment was delayed so she could undergo a mental health examination.
Green was involved in an incident on June 14th of last year.
The police report says her fiancé alerted authorities because Green was acting like she, “never had before.”
Officers described her behavior at the time as extremely manic.
Her fiancé reported she did not use drugs and had no known mental health issues.
Green is now expected to make her first courtroom appearance Monday.
Uber has reportedly terminated Green since the incident.
We reached out to Uber for comment, but did not receive a response in time for this story.

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