TAMPA — The Tampa Police Department says Sgt. Ray Fernandez did nothing wrong last week when he dispatched two officers on a tip from a longtime attorney friend that a man at Malio's Prime Steakhouse drinks and drives.
Officers ended up arresting that man, C. Philip Campbell, who happened to be the opposing counsel in a contentious shock jock defamation trial involving his friend's firm.
The DUI arrest threw the trial into chaos, with cries of a setup and calls for a mistrial.
It also raised a question:
Do officers typically investigate citizen tips that someone might drive after drinking?
Officials from sheriff's offices in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties said no. So did the St. Petersburg Police Department.
"If somebody is drunk at a bar, they've not broken the laws," said Sgt. David DiSano, Pinellas Sheriff's Office spokesman.
Said Hillsborough Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Debbie Carter, "We don't have enough deputies to send to sit out in front of every bar."
But Campbell had a previous DUI arrest. And Fernandez had been called with similar concerns a month before, the sergeant would later testify.
"Getting two calls, coupled with a 2008 DUI arrest, established a pattern of driving under the influence that makes him a more egregious violator and a more serious threat to our citizens," said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. "These factors would make following up on the second tip a priority."
Campbell had stopped at Malio's Wednesday after a full day in court representing Todd "MJ Kelli" Schnitt in his lawsuit against fellow shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.
According to court testimony, Campbell chatted with other lawyers and a woman who never revealed her full name, Melissa Personius, or the fact that she is a paralegal for Adams & Diaco. the firm representing Clem.
Campbell talked about his big case, according to testimony; the woman ordered drinks.
Fernandez testified last week that he got a tip about Campbell some time between 7:30 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. from Adam Filthaut, an attorney with Adams & Diaco. The sergeant, who is godfather to Filthaut's son, sent two officers to the Malio's area.
Police "sat on that location,'' according to Fernandez's testimony. Campbell was pulled over at 9:57 p.m. Records show it was Fernandez who watched him violate the right of way of another vehicle and then, upon making contact, noted glassy eyes and the smell of alcohol. Another officer confirmed his observations.
"If we had failed to investigate it and his driving resulted in a DUI crash with injury or death," McElroy said, "Sgt. Fernandez and our department would have to live with those results and face the consequence."
Fernandez's personnel file with the Tampa Police Department, which dates to September 1994, is full of accolades for his proactive approach supervising DUI officers the past four years. He deploys them to areas with the highest number of DUI traffic accidents. Each member of his squad averages more than 100 DUI arrests per year.
He has never fallen below expectations, the file shows. He got an "exceeds expectations" mark this past year for his "initiative."
"It is disheartening," McElroy said, "that he was a pawn in this situation."
The department said Fernandez would not be commenting. Attempts to reach Filthaut were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, week three of the trial continued Monday, with Schnitt's attorneys' request for a mistrial still hanging and the judge holding off on a ruling. He quickly denied a motion Monday for a mistrial from Clem's defense, which was based on publicity over the weekend. "I'm sure there will be a lot more intense investigation on those issues," Arnold said. "But that's not for me at this time."
Maybe not for him, but attorneys on both sides have subpoenaed each other, prompting stern words from the judge. "If you want to have a dog fight over this, you can have a dog fight over this," the judge said. "But it's not going to be right now."
All attorneys are protected from being called to testify while the defamation trial goes on, Arnold said.
"Right now, we are going to finish this trial," the judge said. "Don't even try to bog us down with any other issues at this time."
The judge continued to poll jurors to make sure they have not been exposed to any trial publicity. After the sideshow made Good Morning America, he added an admonition not to read, watch or listen to any reports about this case, local — or national.
Times staff writer Jodie Tillman and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.