TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - 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.
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