NEW PORT RICHEY — Police Officer Christopher Sutherlin worked crowd control Monday night at a political rally for Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden in Sims Park. He went off duty about 9 p.m.
Hours later, authorities say, the 30-year-old officer rear-ended a pickup on U.S. 19 and sped away. The pickup's driver followed and caught up to him. And when the Florida Highway Patrol investigated, it determined the officer was driving drunk.
Sutherlin, who lives in Dade City, was charged with DUI, two counts of DUI with personal injury, DUI with property damage and leaving the scene of an accident involving injuries.
He has been placed on paid administrative leave while an internal investigation is conducted, Lt. Scott Baker said. Sutherlin has been with New Port Richey about 10 months and is under the department's one-year probation.
The crash occurred on U.S. 19 north of Beau Lane, about a half-mile north of Main Street, just after 3 a.m. Tuesday, FHP said.
Sutherlin was driving a 2006 Nissan pickup when he struck a 2005 Ford pickup, according to the report. Sutherlin was speeding 20 miles over the posted limit, FHP said.
He took off, the report said, and the driver of the second pickup, 26-year-old Joshua Vitori of New Port Richey, followed until Sutherlin was forced to pull over because of front-end damage to his pickup.
Baker said the troopers who arrived first knew Sutherlin from working in the same area. He said FHP sent a trooper from Hernando County who didn't know the officer.
"We just felt it was better that there wasn't any kind of friendship or relationship," Baker said.
Sutherlin told the trooper he couldn't perform field sobriety exercises because of a previous back injury. At the Hernando County jail he took a Breathalyzer test, which registered blood-alcohol levels of 0.148 and 0.151, the report says. Florida law presumes a driver impaired at 0.08.
He was jailed in Land O'Lakes until Tuesday afternoon, when he posted $6,000 bail.
Vitori suffered minor injuries from the crash, FHP said. Sutherlin had two passengers with him. One of them, 24-year-old Joseph Pascalli of New Port Richey, also was treated for minor injuries.
Pascalli is a traffic officer with New Port Richey. Baker said he will also be subject to an internal investigation.
"The fact that he's a police officer, he should probably have known better than to get into a vehicle if he knew a person was intoxicated," Baker said. "So that's something we want to look into."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6245.