Fla. cop fired for offering speeding lawmaker a break

The trooper offered the man a $10 fine in place of a $250 speeding ticket to 'be nice' but the lawmaker complained

By Steve Bousquet
Tampa Bay Times Blogs

TALLAHASSEE — A state trooper who said he was "trying to be nice" stopped a state legislator for speeding on I-10. But instead of writing Rep. Charles McBurney a $250 speeding ticket, the trooper, in his own words, "cut him a break" and offered him a much cheaper alternative of a $10 fine for not having proof of insurance. As a result, he got fired.

McBurney said he was not going 87 miles per hour as Trooper Charles Swindle alleged, and that his cruise control was set at 75. The lawmaker also said he did have proof of insurance, which he said Swindle didn't request. Outraged by the trooper's conduct, the lawmaker complained to Col. David Brierton, head of the Florida Highway Patrol — and last week the FHP fired Swindle for violating department rules, including conduct unbecoming a public employee.

Swindle has hired a lawyer and is challenging the firing and claims the patrol has a long-running unwritten "quid pro quo" policy of not issuing traffic tickets to state legislators.

Attorney Sidney Matthew of Tallahassee argues in a legal challenge of the firing that before offering McBurney the cheaper option of a $10 fine and a warning for speeding, Swindle told his superior, Sgt. Gary Dawson, who replied: "We ain't gettin' no pay raises anyways." The remark attributed to Dawson is in an inspector general's report on the incident.

The report also quotes Swindle as telling the sergeant: "I'm going to write (McBurney) a warning and be nice; I'm going to stroke hiim 'cause I didn't see his insurance card. I'll give him that ticket, warning for speed."

"This stinks," attorney Matthew said. "FHP can't have it both ways, with a policy of discretion to cut breaks to legislators who are speeding and then turn around and fire them."

"That's horse hockey," said Julie Jones, executive director of the Highway Patrol's parent agency, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. "There is no policy that says we give anybody a free pass because they're elected officials." The agency is compiling records to show nearly a dozen lawmakers have been cited for speeding or other moving violations in recent months.

The incident involving McBurney, a Jacksonville Republican, happened on the morning of last Nov. 19 as he and his wife Deborah were driving from their home to Tallahassee for the one-day organizational session of the Legislature. McBurney, a former assistant state attorney, was driving a black Toyota with a distinctive state legislator specialty license plate when he was pulled over in Madison.

McBurney emphasized he was not seeking preferential treatment. "I didn't think that what he did was proper," McBurney said. "I didn't think that was the way he should have acted towards me, or anyone else for that matter. I felt obligated to write the letter. My concern was, if he did that to me, he would do that to anybody."

Shortly after Swindle stopped McBurney, he pulled over another motorist who he said was going 87 in a 70-miles-per-hour zone. Behind the wheel was Rep.-elect Mike Clelland, a newly-elected Democratic lawmaker who was headed to Tallahassee to be sworn in as a member of the House.

Swindle let Clelland off with two citations, for no proof of insurance and no car registration, after noticing a sticker on Clelland's windshield that indicated he was a retired firefighter. "I didn't ask him to give me any break," Clelland said. "I remember, he (Swindle) said, 'You're the second legislator I've pulled over today.'"

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