A man was jailed for 16 days, mostly in solitary confinement, he said, for driving with a suspended license.
Robert Rathoff, 55, of Palm Bay, had been traveling and living in his RV for about two years with his dog, Sadie, when he was arrested by DeLand police April 19 for driving with a suspended license and failing to register his vehicle and trailer, both misdemeanor charges.
His dog, vehicle and trailer were confiscated, and he was transported to the Volusia County Branch Jail, where he spent more than two weeks in quarantine in a cell in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, court records show, before being released on his own recognizance late in the day May 4.
“It’s like something out of a really bad novel,” Rathoff said.
He noted the charges are something that often would result in only a citation, with no other crime involved. No criminal records are on file for Rathoff in Volusia, Brevard or Seminole counties, where Rathoff has lived over the past decade.
“I mean, it was a ticketable offense; I wasn’t thinking this would happen,” Rathoff said.
The DeLand Police Department said one reason Rathoff was initially stopped was because the man riding with him, to whom Rathoff said he had offered a ride, was recognized as having an outstanding warrant for domestic violence.
Rathoff had been on the radar of the DeLand Police Department, who had run his plates about a month before, and an officer noted that the South Carolina tag on the vehicle bounced back to the address of a vacant lot, according to the charging affidavit.
“An officer is allowed to use discretion as long as they do not violate the law. In many cases, to include minor infractions, the officer has the discretion to either file the charges and or make a physical arrest,” Lt. Juan Millan of the DeLand Police Department said. “It all depends on the seriousness of the crime.”
Often, however, such an arrest would result in no more than a night in jail.
In his first appearance in court the day after he was arrested, Rathoff chose to represent himself, he said, although he qualified as indigent, and could have been assigned a public defender. The judge in the case determined there was probable cause to continue Rathoff’s detention, and he was returned to jail, where he was held for 15 more days, and set total bond at $750, an amount Rathoff couldn’t come up with.
“All newly arrived inmates are required to be quarantined for 14 days prior to being assigned to the general inmate population,” Volusia County Community Information Director Kevin Captain said.
Captain said there have been zero cases of COVID-19 in the county’s jail system. The county’s facilities are on a “modified lockdown,” however, and other preventive measures are in place. (By contrast, Tomoka Correctional Institution, a state prison located near the jail in Volusia County, had had 133 cases as of noon May 20.)
Jail was a new experience for Rathoff: Central Florida court records indicate this was Rathoff’s first arrest. In fact, he had previously held a position as a process server for the Brevard Clerk of Court.
“Baloney sandwiches, a stubby toothbrush, a cup about this big that holds maybe 3 ounces, a blanket, a sheet, a steel rack with a — I don’t even know what to call it, I don’t think it passes for a cushion,” Rathoff said of his accommodations.
“I had no contact with others,” Rathoff said, except for one day when another prisoner was briefly held in the same room as him. Once every four days, he said, inmates were allowed to shower in staggered shifts.
“As a measure to protect inmates and staff from COVID-19, Volusia County’s Corrections Division is still on a modified lockdown, which supports social distancing as recommended by the CDC. [This] includes a limitation in showers to twice weekly,” he said.
“You talk to yourself a lot, keep yourself company. Does that sound insane? We’re social creatures, you know, like that movie on the island with the volleyball,” Rathoff said, referring to the popular Tom Hanks movie Cast Away.
“The crazy thing was, I could hear the conversations from the other cells, people talking to their roommates,” Rathoff said.
Mark Flowers, corrections director for Volusia County, said parts of the jail are being used as isolation units. Inmates are kept two to a cell.
“What we do is we look at each cell as sort of an isolated island, so to speak,” he said. “We're taking folks that come into the jail on the same day, and we're only putting them in groups of two into the same cell.”
If, for instance, two people are assigned to a cell one day, and then three days later one gets out of jail, the isolation cell wouldn’t be filled with a newly arrived inmate — instead, Flowers said, another inmate also three days into his isolation could be placed there, or the cell could remain half-empty.
After Rathoff was released, he took a bus to DeLand, and stopped by The Beacon offices, where the staff directed him to The Neighborhood Center. Since his release, he’s stayed and worked at the nonprofit agency’s South Woodland Boulevard campus, where he is now a volunteer.
The Beacon tracked down Sadie, who had been held by DeLand Animal Control in hope the owner would be found. To get his dog back, however, Rathoff needs to find different lodging. His truck and trailer are no longer with the company that towed the vehicle originally, Rathoff said, and none of his personal belongings were kept.
DeLand’s Second Chance Animal Shelter, now that Rathoff is in contact, is prepared to hold the dog longer.
“We always try to reunite owners and animals — it’s the best-case scenario for everyone,” DeLand Animal Control Officer Jennie Fiore said.
Rathoff still marvels at his experience.
“There wasn’t even the possibility in my mind of something like this happening in the United States. Except it happened to me,” Rathoff said.
At The Neighborhood Center, though, he has a place to be and work to do.
“I can say nothing but praise for them for what they do here,” Rathoff said.
“I’ve been very impressed with him,” Neighborhood Center Operations Director Waylan Niece said.