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MANATEE COUNTY - Michael Helmer's DUI arrest was a bit quirky, yet still seemed like a strong case for the Manatee County Sheriff's deputy who arrested him.

Helmer had run out of gas on July 3, 2010, and was pushing his car through the intersection of University Parkway and Whitfield Avenue when the Manatee deputy stopped him. Helmer smelled of alcohol, he admitted drinking several large beers and his blood-alcohol level tested at .12, over the .08 limit that Florida law considers impairment.

But Helmer's defense attorney, AnneMarie Rizzo, acted on a hunch and began examining maps and property records to find out exactly where the county line is and where the traffic stop was made.

Her discovery? University Parkway, once known as County Line Road, is not — as many motorists and mapmakers long believed – the clear dividing line between Sarasota and Manatee counties.

A judge threw out the evidence against Helmer after learning the spot on the north side of University Parkway where Smith was arrested is actually in Sarasota County, not Manatee, meaning the deputy had no authority to arrest Helmer.

Had he seen Helmer pushing his car another 100 feet or so north on Whitfield, the arrest would have been back in Manatee County and considered valid.

Many assume the northern half of University is in Manatee County and the southern half in Sarasota. But it is not even remotely that simple.

From University's western terminus at U.S. 41 the road starts in Sarasota County but actually weaves back and forth between the two counties. Driving east, University goes north of the county line at Shade Avenue, dips south of the county line around Lockwood Ridge Road, then goes north of the county line around Cooper Creek Boulevard and stays in Manatee County as it goes west of Interstate 75.

Helmer's victory in court has prosecutors and law enforcement officials in two counties scrambling to fine-tune traffic enforcement and jurisdictional issues along a busy road that has always been legally problematic.

The case, meanwhile, has given defense attorneys another way to challenge tickets and arrests on University Parkway by finding out if the deputy made the stop on the right side of the line.

"It could impact anybody that has gotten a ticket in that area," said Rizzo, who now is looking at using the defense in another of her cases. "I would say that it's very common."

Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube plans to meet with representatives of the Sarasota County Sheriff Office to make sure deputies are patrolling their own side of the county line and avoiding any further improper arrests.

The first step will be to make sure everyone knows where the counties actually meet.

The border is complicated enough that Steube remembers the Sheriff's Office hiring surveyors and studying aerial photographs a decade ago to split patrol boundaries with the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office.

The two counties have struggled for years to agree upon who responds to 911 calls along University Parkway and who sends fire trucks and ambulances to car crashes.

A 2006 agreement says Sarasota County ambulances and fire trucks respond to all calls west of Tuttle Avenue, while Manatee will take all calls on Tuttle and eastward.

But the actual line must be followed when it comes to law enforcement and where they have arrest powers.

"It's very confusing," Steube said. "I've been with the sheriff's office over 30 years and I can't tell you what's what without pulling out the general orders and seeing what's what."

And that is the easy part. Deputies patrolling the road would be moving in and out of their jurisdiction from one mile marker to the next.

Even so, both sheriff's offices say the deputies patrolling along University know where their jurisdiction ends. They also say deputies tell dispatch the location of their traffic stop and get advised if it is out of their jurisdiction.

But the DUI case highlights that there is still confusion on the patrols. And the sheriff's offices do not routinely track the locations of traffic citations, making it impossible to know how often deputies might be writing tickets in the other county.

Even the official orders appear to conflict.

For example, Manatee County deputies are told to patrol only the north side of intersections on University from Alabama Street to 31st Street Court East; Sarasota County deputies are told the entire roadway between Alabama and 31st is theirs to patrol.

After hearing about the case from the Herald-Tribune, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office looked at aerial photos they have from the last time they met with the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office to set the patrol boundaries.

They found a bit of a strange situation: For a long stretch between U.S. 301 and Shade, the county line appears to be in the middle of the middle lane on the westbound lanes. That would mean Sarasota deputies would be able to pull over cars in the left lane of the Westbound lanes, but not the right lane, and vice versa.

Sarasota County does track a fraction of their tickets, which show two questionable citations from May.

A Sarasota County deputy cited a man for driving while license suspended in the westbound lanes of University at Louisiana Street — where Manatee believes they have jurisdiction.

And eight days later, a Sarasota County deputy ticketed a man at University and Shade Avenue — an intersection his own agency says is Manatee County jurisdiction.

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