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St. Petersburg police officer found not guilty in hit-and-run

LARGO — A judge found a St. Petersburg police officer not guilty of leaving the scene of an accident, putting the department in the awkward position of deciding whether to return him to patrol duty after accusing him of a crime.

Pinellas Judge James Pierce said Thursday that Christopher Dixon was not guilty of leaving the scene, or of careless driving, the two things his own department and prosecutors accused him of.

"I look forward to returning" to patrol duty, Dixon said. He said he did not think it would be difficult to resume working as a patrol officer with the same department that accused him of breaking the law.

But it's not a sure thing. The department's Internal Affairs Division will now complete its report and send it to Dixon's supervisors, including Chief Chuck Harmon.

The chief said he would keep an open mind. But he did say Dixon's truthfulness would be a key consideration.

"We have some, during my administration, where we determined they didn't tell the truth,'' Harmon said. "They are no longer employed here."

The misdemeanor crime of leaving the scene of an accident with property damage carries a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail, but this attracted more attention because it involved an officer on the job.

The trial also took an interesting sideline as both sides attempted to explain why the GPS device in Dixon's car did not place him at the scene of the accident.

Both sides acknowledged the devices are easy to disable and said it's well known that officers sometimes do so if they don't want headquarters to be able to track their speed or location.

One officer said others sometimes disable the devices while getting a quick bite to eat. Dixon, taking the stand in his own defense, acknowledged he previously had disabled his device so he could drive to an urgent call for service, going faster than he was supposed to. But he flatly denied disabling his GPS the night of the accident.

The case dates to July 29, 2009, after a Tampa Bay Rays baseball game. A Riverview man approached an officer and said his minivan had been rear-ended by a police cruiser — which then sped away.

Police interviewed two officers who said they had heard what sounded like a crash and then looked up to see a van and police car close to each other. One officer ultimately identified Dixon as the driver.

Investigators also found a cruiser with damage they said was fresh. The cruiser with scuff marks on its right front fender led police to the man who had been driving it that night: Dixon.

During the trial, one officer testified that the car had little or no damage the day before Dixon drove it; and another reported finding damage to the car the day after Dixon drove it. Dixon said the damage occurred during an accident several months earlier, which was documented in the vehicle's damage log.

Defense attorney Joseph Ciarciaglino, who has a reputation for staunchly defending police officers, vigorously cross-examined the officers in this trial, attempting to poke holes in the state's case.

In closing arguments, he pointed out that the officer who identified Dixon as the driver had initially failed to do so. He pointed to a lack of incriminating GPS data, said estimates of the timing of the accident were off, and that it was too dark to get a clear view. He said investigators did not inspect more than 100 take-home cruisers to see whether one of them had been in the accident.

Assistant State Attorney Timothy Sullivan said that there was plenty of evidence pointing to Dixon and that you would have to believe in a huge coincidence to conclude he was innocent. If the damage to Dixon's cruiser happened several months ago, as Dixon said, why did no one report it until the day after the accident?

Police officers had said Dixon showed a guilty conscience when they interviewed him, by putting his face in his hands and getting teary-eyed. Dixon said there was a reason for that: "I was upset because I was being wrongfully accused."

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report.

St. Petersburg police officer found not guilty in hit-and-run 12/16/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 16, 2010 10:07pm]
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