Robin Fuson

Staying Safe And Festive At Gasparilla

Criminal Defense

It’s almost time again for Tampa’s largest annual celebration. The Gasparilla Pirate Festival has been held in late January or early February since 1904. Hosted by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla and the City of Tampa, the Gasparilla Festival in 2015 had an economic impact of $23 million on Tampa’s economy. The average crowd at the main Gasparilla parade is over 300,000 people, and over a million people attend at least one Gasparilla event. Wherever there’s a million people, you know that you can count on some crimes being committed.

The Gasparilla Pirate Festival celebrates the legend of pirate captain José Gaspar (c. 1756 – 1821), a ruthless criminal who terrorized Southwest Florida beginning in 1783. Gaspar established his base on a small barrier island south of Tampa Bay, plundering dozens of ships and amassing a huge cache of treasure. Gaspar’s male prisoners were put to death or recruited as pirates, while women were taken to a nearby island (called Captiva Island for this reason), where they served as Gaspar’s concubines, became the wives of his pirates, or waited for ransom payments from their families.

That’s the legend. The historical facts are a bit more sketchy. The first written account of José Gaspar was in a 1900 brochure for the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad Company – advertising to potential tourists which also hinted that Gaspar’s vast treasure cache was still hidden somewhere on Gasparilla Island. The first Gasparilla parade was held in 1904, combining the legend of José Gaspar with elements of Mardi Gras to give Tampa a new celebration with local connections. The festival was cancelled in 1990 and during the two world wars but has otherwise been held every year, and the 2017 festival is shaping up to be one of the biggest ever.


In 2016, more than a thousand Tampa police officers and 21 other law enforcement agencies kept a close watch for underage drinking and for security threats. Last year only 25 arrests were made at Gasparilla, mostly for alcohol-related misdemeanors. Tampa Police said the parade was without any major incidents except for the massive traffic tie-ups. If you plan to take part in any of this year’s Gasparilla festivities, here are some tips for avoiding injury and arrest and for keeping the festival festive:

• Security: Again this year, more than a thousand police officers and police dogs will be patrolling neighborhoods on bicycles and on elevated platforms to monitor the crowds, and closed-circuit TV cameras will be set along the parade route.

• Adhering to the Rules: Open containers are allowed inside the event area and along the parade route, but not in the neighborhoods. No large coolers are allowed – only soft-sided, smaller coolers. Tampa Police will continue to be tough – as they’ve been in recent years – on underage drinking, public urination, and open containers outside the event area.

• Driving Under the Influence: Expect to pass through at least one of the many DUI checkpoints. If you’re sober and cooperative, it won’t take long or be a problem. Police boats will also be out with officers prepared to make BUI (boating under the influence) arrests. If you are charged with DUI, BUI, or any other alcohol-related offense, you’ll need to contact an experienced Tampa DUI lawyer at once.

• Pets and parking: It’s really better to leave the pets at home. Parking is available throughout downtown and Ybor City. City garages have a one-time special event rate, paid upon entry. Many churches and businesses near the parade route sell spaces in their parking lots. Extra streetcar, bus, and trolley services will be offered.

• Boating: It might be a pirate festival, but boaters will have to obey the rules. Only motorized crafts are allowed in the area around the parade and invasion. Boats that move erratically or get too close to the “invasion fleet” will be stopped for suspicion of boating under the influence. There is no rule against having alcohol on your boat, but operators cannot be over the same legal limit that applies to automobile drivers, a blood alcohol content level of 0.08 percent.


A relatively new service for boaters, BoatSetter, lets you charter a boat with an operator – just like Uber – or hire an operator for your own boat. Sure, cabs and services like BoatSetter and Uber cost a few dollars, but a conviction for driving or boating under the influence could cost thousands of dollars, impact your employment, raise your insurance rates, and negatively affect the lives of your loved ones. Have a plan if you plan on drinking at Gasparilla. HART is rolling out more buses, the downtown trolley is free, and the TECO Streetcar will take you from Ybor City to downtown Tampa.


Do not drink and drive at Gasparilla. No matter how inconvenient it may be, you can’t take the risk. A first-offense DUI conviction is serious enough, but if you are in a traffic collision, and you are under the influence, you could face a penalty that changes your entire life. The penalties in Florida for a “simple” DUI or BUI conviction – with no injuries, no property damage, and no other crimes involved – are:

• First conviction: a 1-year driver’s license suspension; up to $2,000 in fines; and up to 9 months in jail.
• Second conviction: a 5-year driver’s license suspension; up to $4,000 in fines; and up to a year in jail.
• Third conviction: a 10-year driver’s license suspension; up to $5,000 in fines; and up to a year in jail.

As soon as the offender’s driver’s license suspension is lifted, the installation of an ignition interlock device (IID) is also now required for all convicted Florida DUI offenders. If you are charged with DUI or BUI at Gasparilla or at any time in 2017, contact an experienced Tampa DUI lawyer at once, and understand that an arrest is not the same thing as a conviction. Good DUI lawyers prevail on behalf of clients every day in our state. In 2011, more than 55,000 drivers were charged with driving under the influence in this state, but only about 34,000 were convicted. Still, the best advice for Gasparilla – and year-round – is “Don’t drink and drive.”

Robin Fuson
By Robin Fuson