Clay County DUI video case divides supreme court


The deputy's dashcam video showed a dark-colored pickup truck traveling down a Clay County road in the early morning hours. That much is clear.

But what the video captured -- and how it should be used in a drunken-driving case -- sharply divided the Florida Supreme Court this week and even led to a copy of the video being embedded in the majority opinion.

The case centered on a question about whether a circuit judge should have used the video in overturning an administrative hearing officer's decision that backed the suspension of Joseph Wiggins' license for driving under the influence.

The circuit judge reviewed the video and found that it refuted a deputy's arrest report and testimony about the traffic stop of Wiggins. The 1st District Court of Appeal, however, ruled that the circuit judge didn't have the legal authority to reweigh such evidence in the case -- a decision that prompted Wiggins to take the dispute to the Supreme Court.

In a 23-page opinion Tuesday, the five-member Supreme Court majority backed the circuit judge's decision to use the video evidence and pointed to the technological changes that have occurred in police work.

"We respect the authority and expertise of law enforcement officers, and thus rely on an officer's memory when necessary," said the majority opinion, written by Justice R. Fred Lewis and joined by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, justices Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince and Senior Justice James E.C. Perry. "But we would be remiss if we failed to acknowledge that at times, an officer's human recollection and report may be contrary to that which actually happened as evinced in the real time video. This is the reality of human imperfection; we cannot expect officers to retain information as if he or she were a computer. Therefore, a judge who has the benefit of reviewing objective and neutral video evidence along with officer testimony cannot be expected to ignore that video evidence simply because it totally contradicts the officer's recollection. Such a standard would produce an absurd result."

But Justice Charles Canady, in a dissent joined by Justice Ricky Polston, disputed the majority's interpretation of what was shown on the video and said the deputy's "testimony and the video are competent, substantial evidence that support the hearing officer's findings." The Supreme Court only identified the deputy by his last name, but other court documents listed him as J.C. Saunders.

Also, the dissent said the circuit judge improperly waded into the detailed evidence in the case.

"Instead of simply determining whether there was competent, substantial evidence in the record to support the hearing officer's conclusion that the stop of Wiggins was lawful -- which the circuit court conceded that Deputy Saunders' testimony and report provided -- the circuit court applied the wrong law, incorrectly concluded that the video conflicted with Deputy Saunders' testimony and report, and substituted its judgment for that of the hearing officer as to the relative weight of the supposedly conflicting evidence," Canady wrote.

But the two sides of the court offered vastly different views of whether the video showed Wiggins driving erratically, leading to the deputy pulling him over.

"The dashboard camera on Saunders' vehicle recorded Wiggins' driving pattern from the time Saunders first saw the vehicle to the time Wiggins was stopped," Lewis wrote in the majority opinion. "As Saunders trailed Wiggins' vehicle that night, the video showed Wiggins driving totally within the proper lines. Wiggins did not cross any lines, nor did he nearly hit the curb. Wiggins did change lanes only once in an apparent attempt to clear the lane for Saunders, but he utilized his turn signal before doing so. Wiggins then activated his turn signal to move into a left turn lane, braked in preparation to turn at a traffic light, and made a normal left turn once the traffic light turned green. As Wiggins turned left, Saunders activated his emergency lights."

But that isn't what Canady saw.

"What Deputy Saunders described in his narration can be seen on the video," Canady's dissent said. "Wiggins was not driving within the proper lines but was repeatedly driving on or over the fog line, nearly hit the curb on multiple occasions, and was drifting within his lane. The video shows that Deputy Saunders observed this driving pattern for several minutes before initiating a traffic stop. The video also clearly shows that just prior to the initiation of the traffic stop, Wiggins passed an opening for a left-turn lane and then slowly drifted over a solid white line into the turn lane before turning left. Additionally, Deputy Saunders testified and wrote in his report that Wiggins was driving 30 mph in a 45-mph zone and that these observations occurred at approximately 2:10 a.m."