A couple in Pennsylvania could go to jail for as many as seven years for allegedly sending their 5-year-old-daughter to a public elementary school outside the district they lived in.
Hamlet and Olesia Garcia were arrested on felony charges in 2012, accused of theft of services and conspiracy to commit theft of services.
The trial, which begins Tuesday, marks one of the rare times in the United States that a family has been criminally prosecuted for so-called "boundary hopping," where parents use a false address to enroll their children in schools deemed better and safer outside of their districts.
What they have there is a very exclusive, elitist community – whites, intellectuals and professionals – that are scared that this school system is going to attract the riff-raff baggy pants members of the black and Hispanic communities down the street.
- Ricardo Corona, Garcias' lawyer
The Montgomery County District Attorney's Office argued that the Garcias, who live in Philadelphia County, claimed they lived in Montgomery County in order to send their daughter, Fiorella, to kindergarten at Pine Elementary School for the 2011-2012 school year.
The county prosecutor said that the Garcias benefited from the district's education services – to the tune of $10,753 per student per year – without paying local taxes or out-of-district tuition.
Hamlet, a black Cuban-American, and Olesia, a white Ukrainian-American, denied the allegations.
They said their daughter was eligible to attend school and contend they are being targeted by a "bigoted" and "racist" prosecutor who wants to make an example of them in an effort to keep minority families from sending their kids to better out-of-district schools.
There were 15 similar cases in the Lower Moreland School District, according to the District Attorney's office. However, the Garcias were the only parents to face criminal charges, and according to the family, they happen to be the only minority parents.
Steven Latzer, Deputy District Attorney in Montgomery County, told Fox News Latino they are prosecuting "without regard to the defendants’ race or background" and are "not trying to make an example of them."
In November 2012, three months after the Garcias’ arrest, prosecutors offered to expunge the Philadelphia couple's record if they enrolled their daughter in a school corresponding to her district, complete a court approved rehabilitative program and repay tuition to the Lower Moreland School District.
Since then, the Garcia family fired two of their lawyers and they're now being represented by Ricardo Corona, a Florida lawyer and a Spanish language television personality. Olesia said the family decided to find an outside lawyer who could go against the Montgomery County District attorney "in a high profile case."
The Garcias insist their daughter was zoned to go to school in the Lower Moreland School District.
Hamlet, 42, told Fox News Latino that marital problems in the summer of 2011 caused the couple to split. He stayed in Philadelphia County but his wife moved to her father's home with their daughter Fiorella in Montgomery County.
Fiorella was registered in the local school under her grandfather's address, where she was living with her mom at the time, Olesia said.
"To me this is not America, or how America works," said Olesia, who has run the family's independent insurance agency for the last 11 years and is in jeopardy of losing her insurance license if she is found guilty.
"I was arrested, handcuffs attached to a leather belt,” she said. “I was forced to go to the bathroom while the cameras were watching me. We committed no crime."
But in March, two months before the school year ended, the couple reconciled and moved back together without letting the school know they had changed addresses.
"Exposing her (Fiorella) to new teachers, new students toward the end of the year ― that's dramatic," Olesia explained. "Why would anyone switch their child's school like that?"
School officials found out about the move after Olesia's stepmother told them the Garcias were lying about their address.
"Technically, it's a domestic dispute between family members that blew up," Olesia explained. "But my father, who is my blood, is the resident of the county. He pays taxes!"
But according to the DA's office, the Lower Moreland Police conducted surveillance on the grandfather's home and found that the Garcia's daughter never left the house to go to school and that the grandfather said Olesia and Fiorella only stayed with him "sometimes."
After school officials were alerted, the Garcia family met with the superintendent of the Lower Moreland Township School District, Marykay Feeley, in April of 2012.
At the meeting, the Garcias offered to pay back the education cost for the two months their child was living out of the district. They said they later offered to pay the full year in order to get the charges dropped.
Feeley denied the offer, according to Hamlet, and said all evidence would be handed to the police for further investigation.
For three months afterward, the Garcias unsuccessfully requested meetings with the Feeley, but she denied them a hearing in front of the school board, Hamlet said, which is against district policy.
The Garcias contend that not only are they not guilty, but they should never have been charged as felons.
Pennsylvania is one of just six states with specific laws punishing those who give false information about their residency to a school.
Under the law, the Garcias should be subject to paying tuition costs, 240 hours of community service and a fine of up to $300 as well as court costs.
But regardless of specific laws, a state can decide to charge parents for the more serious crime of falsifying information and documents.
Hamlet said he and his wife are being charged as felons for no other reason than to serve as an extreme warning for minority parents in low-income neighborhoods not to send their kids "across the border" into other districts with better schools.
"The explanation is quite simple," said Corona, the Garcias' lawyer, about the Lower Moreland School District.
“What they have there is a very exclusive, elitist community – whites, intellectuals and professionals – that are scared that this school system is going to attract the riff-raff baggy pants members of the black and Hispanic communities down the street.”
Over the last year and a half, Hamlet and his family say they have spent roughly $50,000 on travel and legal fees.
They have not received any free legal help, he said. The father has taken to social media to plead his case and has amassed over 200,000 Twitter followers, created a White House petition and started his own website.
Garcia, whose own father was imprisoned by Fidel Castro for revolting against communism, has managed to become a face in the national campaign to decriminalize "boundary hopping" across the nation.
Last July, Connecticut passed a law which stops the felony arrests of parents who enroll their kids in schools outside of their district. Gwen Samuel, the president and founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, joined forces with Garcia and others to push for the legislation.
"We must decriminalize these zip code laws nationally"" Samuel said in an interview with Fox News Latino. "The taxpayers have a valid point, but arresting parents and potentially putting kids in foster care is not the answer."
Samuel said communities of color are disproportionately affected by issues of residency and enrollment issues and parents are being punished harshly for trying to give their kids a safe and better education.
"The law gives a family a fair hearing, protects the taxpayer investment, and allows the issue to be addressed within the education system," Samuel said. "The fact that the state of Pennsylvania is digging their heels in for $3,000 ... means this is about a bigger political picture way beyond Hamlet and his wife."
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