It’s a long-standing unwritten policy among the Florida Highway Patrol not to ticket lawmakers when officers catch them speeding. That’s according to testimony from state troopers during an officer’s wrongful termination hearing on Wednesday.
Six-year veteran Highway Patrolman Charles Swindle was fired in March for writing tickets for offenses people didn’t commit. The charges came after a letter of complaint from a state lawmaker he’d pulled over for speeding on Interstate 10 in November.
A video of that stop, of Jacksonville-based Rep. Charles McBurney, played at the hearing. On it, Swindle can be heard telling McBurney he’d clocked him going 87 miles per hour. But, he testified, he changed his tune once he realized he’d pulled over a lawmaker.
“We’re always told to be lenient on legislators,” he said. When his lawyer, Sidney Matthew, asked why, he said, “They control our pay raises and stuff like that.”
In McBurney’s case, and with another lawmaker later the same day, Rep. Mike Clelland, officer Swindle issued a warning for speeding and just a $10 fine for not showing proof of insurance. Swindle’s attorney said, this is part of a widespread policy among the Florida Highway Patrol.
The fired officer’s direct supervisor, now–retired Sgt. Gary Dawson, testified, starting in the police academy, officers are directed to think twice before writing lawmakers a speeding ticket.
“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,” he said.
On a dashboard video of the stop, Rep. McBurney 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. McBurney then wrote a letter to the FHP, saying he was concerned such treatment would be applied to anyone the officer pulled over.
Dawson said, following the letter, Swindle was let go without anyone consulting him.
“Trooper Swindle has excelled in everything he’s been asked to do. He’s been a leader in DUI [arrests] in the state,” he said.
Florida Highway Patrol lawyers said, they’re unaware of any policy directing officers to give lawmakers preferential treatment. And, they said, regardless of any discretion an officer is allowed to exercise when issuing tickets, he absolutely can never issue one for an offense that’s not committed.
Hearing officer Gregg Morton expects to rule within two weeks.