PINELLAS PARK — A jury has acquitted a member of the Outlaws motorcycle bike club who said the officer who charged him with DUI was so verbally abusive that he "was scared for his safety."
Martin David Dowdy's defense centered on the actions of Pinellas Park police Officer John McNeil, who has long been one of the department's leading officers.
McNeil has won numerous awards from MADD for catching drunken drivers and has twice been named officer of the year. He has also been commended by at least one defense attorney for his professional conduct during a DUI stop.
But McNeil, 56, has been the target of complaints from residents who contend that he can be belligerent and verbally abusive and that he has charged people with offenses they did not commit.
His sergeant suggested in 2007 that he be transferred back to patrol, where he could be closely supervised, but police Chief Dorene Thomas refused. She said McNeil had been through a bad patch but had put those incidents behind him. Thomas said her faith in McNeil was justified and she continued to support him.
She affirmed that support Tuesday, saying, "Really, it doesn't even require an answer, (but) I still stand behind my crew."
Thomas' stance baffled Tarpon Springs defense attorney Jerry Theophilopoulos, who represents Dowdy. "Why the chief supports him is beyond me," the attorney said, and added: "His testimony was strange, to say the least ... He had an excuse for every problem in his case as well as all of the prior complaints made against him. It is frightening to believe he is still on the streets pulling people over."
Dowdy was charged with DUI, driving with a suspended or revoked license, and refusing a breath test in March 2007 after leaving Carlie's, a Pinellas Park nightspot, with a friend. McNeil followed him for several blocks before pulling him over on 54th Avenue N, outside the Pinellas Park city limits.
The jury acquitted Dowdy, 50, of the DUI charge. The other two charges are pending.
McNeil has a stellar record, said Pinellas Park spokesman Tim Caddell, which proves "he has done a good job and has kept a lot of potentially dangerous people off the street."
Caddell added that Theophilopoulos "has the right to gloat; he won his case" but "we don't tell him how to handle his cases and he shouldn't tell us how to handle our Police Department."
During the trial last week, much of Theophilopoulos' cross-examination was directed at McNeil's truthfulness and why the in-car videotape was turned off after Dowdy was pulled over.
"He testified that he turned off the video because he went back to the car to check Mr. Dowdy's driver's license. He claimed 'that is my habit,' " Theophilopoulos said.
That contradicted other statements McNeil had made, the attorney said. Theophilopoulos said McNeil "wrote in his police report, 'I adjusted the video ... I must have turned the camera off as later, when I went to duplicate the tape, only the stop was recorded.' "
McNeil also testified that "he requested that his backup sit behind the video and pick up the area ... He indicated he frequently does that. When (Pinellas Park police) Officer (Harold) Behar was questioned about this, he said he was not asked to go behind McNeil's wheel and do this on this case.''
Theophilopoulos also said: "When I asked why he did not use the DUI video room at the jail, he said he has only used it a couple of times in his career. ... He claimed that not having video was not important, as 'a human can detect things that a video won't.' "