The director of the agency that oversees the Florida Highway Patrol said she never heard of an unwritten policy in which state lawmakers would be issued tickets for lesser offenses when pulled over for speeding.
Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles Executive Director Julie Jones said she expects the agency will look into such allegations, described last week by a handful of former and current troopers during an administrative hearing on the firing of former FHP Trooper Charles Swindle.
But Jones, speaking to reporters Tuesday after appearing before Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet, backed her agency’s action on Swindle, maintaining that issuing tickets that contain “fake” information harms the credibility of the trooper.
“All I can say is, I don’t know of any unwritten policy,” said Jones, a former law-enforcement officer with the old Game and Freshwater Fish Commission. “We give officers discretion to write a ticket or to not write a ticket. We do not allow officers to write tickets for things that did not happen.”
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 speeding ticket that would have cost about $250. Swindle pulled over McBurney along Interstate 10 in Madison County
Swindle’s attorney argued that the trooper is the first ever fired for such a violation.
A handful of current and former FHP troopers said they’ve been advised since their academy training to practice such “discretion” when making traffic stops that involve state lawmakers.
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.
Jones agreed that officers are allowed to make judgment calls based upon circumstances, but they cannot create untrue documents.
“We do not allow them to write tickets for situations that do not occur. That goes to the basic credibility of the officer,” Jones said. “If you’re a defense attorney and you have an officer that writes tickets randomly for events that did not occur, I’d want to ask that officer, ‘Did this really happen or is this one of those fake tickets you wrote?’ ”
A Public Employees Relations Commission hearing officer could issue a ruling in Swindle’s case by the middle of next week.
Both legislators were clocked at 87 mph before being pulled over, though McBurney disputed he was going that fast. The tickets issued by Swindle were for failure to have proper proof of insurance. Clelland also was ticketed for not having proof of registration.
Both lawmakers later told investigators they had the documents during the traffic stops.
–Jim Turner, News Service of Florida