FHP Denies Preferential Treatment Policy For Lawmakers That Trooper Says Cost His Job

May 31, 2013

Fired Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Charles Swindle waits to testify at his hearing on Wednesday.
Credit Jessica Palombo / WFSU-FM

This week, a state trooper fired from the Florida Highway Patrol had a chance to defend himself at a hearing. The officer’s defense strategy is raising the question of whether lawmakers get free passes when they’re caught breaking the law.

Current and former troopers with the Florida Highway Patrol testified at the hearing, it’s common, unwritten policy to go easy on state lawmakers.

“This goes back to the academy. We were taught in the academy that if you stop a legislator, it would behoove you not to write a ticket,” retired Sgt. Gary Dawson said.

“All through my career, I was told that it would be your best interest not to write them,” Sgt. Bill Griesbaum said, “because they control the purse strings.”

And recently fired former state trooper Charles Swindle said, “We’re always told to be lenient on legislators.”

Swindle was fired in March, after one fateful day last November. That day,  he happened to stop two lawmakers on Interstate 10: Rep. Charles McBurney, from Jacksonville, and Rep. Mike Clelland, from Longwood. In both cases, the only ticket he issued was a $10 citation for not showing proof of insurance, even though, he testified, both lawmakers were clocked going 87 miles per hour.

Dawson, who was Swindle’s supervisor at the time, said, he sees no problem with Swindle’s actions that day.

“I think he did a good job on the traffic stop,” Dawson testified.

He said,  Swindle’s actions were exactly in line with what highway patrol troopers are trained to do when they nab a legislator. It begins in training academy and gets repeated frequently at troop meetings, including a meeting on the morning of the stops, he said.

“Well, there’s several things you could do. You could just bid them a farewell and let them go on their way. You could give them a warning, let them go on their way. You could give them a ticket for a lesser amount for a lesser offense,” Dawson said.

But the Florida Highway Patrol maintains lawmakers don’t get preferential treatment over everyone else.

Capt. Nancy Rasmussen said, “Frankly, the Florida Highway Patrol does not have a policy, unwritten or not.”

And she said, Swindle’s defense, that leniency is a widespread policy, is beside the point of why he was fired.

“Really, that doesn’t have anything to do with leniency or officer discretion. It was falsification of records,” she said.

Highway Patrol lawyer Sandra Coulter argued at the hearing, no matter what, officers can never write a ticket for an offense that’s not committed.

In a dashboard video showing Swindle stopping McBurney, the representative can be heard saying he had an insurance card, to which Swindle replied, he was cutting him a break by not writing the speeding ticket.

Coulter asked Swindle at the hearing, “So were you making him choose between what he was going to get?”

“Not my intentions. No, ma’am,” Swindle said.

Coulter asked, “Why did you make the statement, ‘If I see that, I have to give you the other ticket?”

Swindle replied, “I don’t know.”

After the stop, McBurney wrote a letter to the Highway Patrol, saying he was concerned the officer would apply the same treatment to anyone he pulled over.

Sgt. Dawson said, Swindle was then let go without anyone consulting him, and he was sad to see him go.

“Trooper Swindle has exceled in everything he’s been asked to do. He’s been a leader in DUI [arrests] in the state.”

Hearing officer Gregg Morton expects to rule on Swindle’s firing within two weeks.