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FHP Troopers Speak of Unwritten Directive to Ticket Lawmakers Less Harshly Than Other Drivers

| May 29, 2013

It's the 1950s all over again, and not just in Bunnell. (kellyv)

It’s the 1950s all over again, and not just in Bunnell. (kellyv)

A handful of current and former Florida Highway Patrol troopers said Wednesday they’ve been advised to practice “discretion” when making traffic stops that involve state lawmakers.

In other words, don’t issue traffic tickets to certain people, but if you must, give citations that will cost less.

However, an attorney for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles contended such a quid-pro-quo between law enforcement and lawmakers doesn’t exist.

More importantly, Sandra Coulter, representing the state agency, said the alleged unwritten policy is immaterial to the future of former Florida Highway Patrol trooper Charles Swindle, who appeared Wednesday at a Public Employees Relations Commission administrative hearing.

Swindle contends he was fired because he followed a decades-old, unwritten agency policy when he issued a $10, nonmoving violation last November to state Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, rather than a more expensive speeding ticket worth about $250.

The state maintains Swindle is out a job because he signed tickets issued to McBurney and Rep. Mike Clelland, D-Lake Mary, that contained “false” information. Clelland was stopped on the same day as McBurney.

The tickets were for failure to have proper proof of insurance. Clelland also was ticketed for not having proof of registration.

Both lawmakers said during the traffic stops they had the documents.

“This is about falsification, not about whether the drivers were legislators or not,” Coulter said.

A recommended order by hearing officer Gregg Morton is expected within 10 to 15 days.

McBurney, who complained about the traffic stop, and Clelland were not among those testifying on Wednesday.

Last Friday Morton sided with the House and Senate in issuing orders that quashed subpoenas requesting a number of other lawmakers to appear at the hearing.

The subpoenas sought testimony from Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth; Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness; Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart; and Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. Also, they sought testimony from Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa; Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater; Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland; Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville; and Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee.

Swindle’s attorney, Sidney Matthew, called the FHP investigation that resulted in Swindle’s termination “flawed” as investigators failed to follow normal procedures and failed to discuss the matter with Swindle’s immediate supervisors.

Matthew also has tried to make the alleged leniency policy a major part of Swindle’s case.

FHP Sgt. William Griesbaum said he once was advised by an FHP major to “talk” to a trooper who had given a ticket to a legislator, with the implication being not to repeat such an action.

Retired FHP Sgt. Gary Dawson, who was patrolling Interstate 10 with Swindle on Nov. 19, said cutting a break or issuing a nonmoving violation ticket has been a longstanding verbal policy in the agency.

“This goes back to the academy,” Dawson said “We were taught in the academy if you were to stop a legislator or U.S. Rep. it would behoove you not to write them a ticket, because they’re the ones who hold your pay raise in their hand.”

Dawson conferred with Swindle before the ticket to McBurney was issued and approved how the matter was being handled.

Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell, who appeared at the hearing but wasn’t allowed to speak, told reporters it’s a “common practice” that legislators have been given leniency on state highways, the same as law enforcement officers regularly waive rules for other law enforcement officers as a “professional courtesy.”

“I wouldn’t think about giving a trooper a ticket as I would give my wife one,” Campbell said.

Matthew said the 30-year-old trooper, who had been with the state agency since June 1, 2006, has been singled out because McBurney complained.

“I believe I was being lenient,” Swindle said while testifying on Wednesday.

Most of Swindle’s responses during the day-long hearing were simply one or two words.

Swindle, who hopes to clear his name so he can land a job with a county sheriff’s office, deferred comment to his attorney when addressing reporters.

A patrol car dashboard video was shown during the hearing that provided audio of the McBurney traffic stop, which included Swindle talking to Sgt. Dawson before issuing the ticket.

McBurney was pulled over at 10:14 a.m. Nov. 19 along I-10 in Madison County for driving 87 mph. McBurney disputed the speeding claim, saying his cruise control was set around 75 mph.

McBurney and Clelland, whose traffic stop was also shown on video, were heading to Tallahassee for the Legislature’s post-election organizational session.

Clelland, who told Swindle he had the proper paperwork, was advised by the trooper if he produced the paperwork a more expensive speeding ticket would have to be issued.

–Jim Turner, news Service of Florida

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13 Responses for “FHP Troopers Speak of Unwritten Directive to Ticket Lawmakers Less Harshly Than Other Drivers”

  1. BlueBoy says:

    Cops don’t give other cops traffic tickets at all. Even a DUI is overlooked if possible. Politicians, judges and close family members of all get the same pass too. Simple fact: If EVERYBODY were subject to the same laws and penalties, the laws and penalties would be different. But power always corrupts those given power always succumb, and society always suffers. It’s the way of things.

    And anyone says this is not true is a boldfaced lair.

    Is this really news to anybody?! Duh!!!

    • really? says:

      I would have to disagree. I personally know of a retired Police Officer, an active Deputy and a Deputy’s
      daughter that were arrested for DUI.

    • Profiler says:

      not true….I know a police captain who was given a speeding ticket on I-95 in St John’s County for speeding by FHP
      I also know of a detective from Volusia County who was arrested in Flagler County for DUI
      There are also stories in the News Journal all the time about different cops being arrested for DUI..some by their own agency
      What about the Flagler Beach officer arrested on the west side by deputies for DUI
      the list goes on and on
      and NO….I’m not a liar…I’m just apparently more informed than you are

  2. fla native says:

    This is old news. The fox is guarding the hen house. Welcome to Florida.

  3. Sherry Epley says:

    The brain trust of Mc Burney and Clelland is laughable. So, it appears both of these state politicans were pulled over for expensive (and unsafe?) moving violations. The officer tried to give them a huge break by (incorrectly) writing them up for not having proof of insurance/registration papers in the car. Mc Burney then complains about the “greatly reduced” ticket. . . what a genius!

    Now Pandora’s box is opened to the public. In my opinion, let’s stop giving these “unofficial” breaks to politicans. They should be treated like every other unsafe driver! They need to completely live within the laws like everyone else!

    The officer should be reinstated and new policy should be written to completely stop this practice!

  4. confidential says:

    What a shame a trooper loosing his job because dirty politic maneuvers that make him guilty if he does or doesn’t. I hope the investigation goes to the bottom of this issue because none of us, politician or not should be above the law..

  5. Pete says:

    Probably won’t enter Palm Coast because of all the Red Light Cameras. The good ole boy network is alive and well.

  6. Tired Trooper says:

    From this day forward any legislator that is caught violating any traffic law should be told that based on the ungrateful sob colleague Rep McBurney that they are receiving a ticket.

  7. Jennifer Lopez says:

    Done in every State , lets get real !

  8. Gerry says:

    Hopefully Mcburney is out of a job very soon. What an idiot!!!

  9. RG says:

    I believe discretion,means give a warning in lieu of a cite which should apply to all. But like most state police agencies State troopers always cite if they have to stop you,also maybe an unwritten rule. So he cited. Dont seem like they protect thier own when shit flows down hill. This will be a wake up call to all troopers that think someone in the brass has their back. He is what you call the fall guy.

    He should of known you cant trust suits on Capitol Hill anyway.

  10. briggid says:

    And this is news? Oh, maybe “the law” has never had to be so forthcoming about this fact before. Now that it’s been aired in a courtroom, though, will anything change? Um, don’t hold yer breath…

  11. rickg says:

    I wonder what Julie Jones thinks of all this.. It is her Department

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