Saturday, January 20, 2018
Public safety

Hillsborough County Circuit Court judge charged with DUI

TAMPA — Lying on the cold, concrete bench of a jail cell Friday night, Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan thought a lot about the decision that landed her there.

After dinner in South Tampa earlier that night, she and a cousin had gone out for drinks in Ybor City, she recounted from home Saturday morning. The pair bar-hopped between Gaspar's Grotto, Buffalo Wild Wings and the Green Iguana, she said.

Then, at about 11 p.m., they headed back to her home off of Bayshore Boulevard.

But they didn't get very far.

As Sheehan, 53, drove away from an Ybor City parking garage, a Tampa police officer noticed her drifting across lanes, according to an arrest report. A field sobriety test showed signs of impairment and she had slurred speech and bloodshot eyes, the report stated. The officer charged her with drunken driving.

Sheehan, whose legal first name is Brenda, was arrested on the misdemeanor charge and booked into the Hillsborough County jail. Her blood-alcohol content was recorded at 0.171 and 0.161 percent, jail records show. Florida law presumes a driver is impaired when blood alcohol is above 0.08 percent.

She was released on $500 bail early Saturday morning.

"It was a horrible, poor choice on my part to get behind the wheel. It will never happen again," she said from her home a few hours later, as she sat in the living room dressed in pajama pants and a tank top. "Unfortunately, it's a very poor reflection on the judiciary and that's what is most regrettable."

The night in jail was humiliating, she said.

"Every time you use the bathroom, there are all these people around," she said of her cell. "They have a bench made of cement with no padding. I had on this skimpy sundress because it was hot out last night. And I froze in there."

Eventually, a guard gave her an orange jail shirt to cover up with.

"They treated me nicely over there," she said.

She informed Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr. of her arrest, she said. And she could face a review by the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, she said, but doesn't expect that to happen.

"Certainly, the Judicial Qualifications Commission would be concerned if they thought that I had an issue that affected my ability to run my courtroom and be a judge," she said. But "there is no evidence of me having some sort of drinking problem or having an issue running my courtroom."

Elected to the court in 2007, Sheehan built a reputation as being tough on abusive and neglectful parents while having a soft spot for children's causes. She once donated $100,000 from her retirement fund to build a children's shelter after surviving cancer.

In 2012, a war of words with the Hillsborough County Public Defender's Office over a boy in her court got her reassigned to the satellite courthouse in Plant City, where she now hears family law, divorce and probate cases. She was re-elected to a six-year term in 2012.

Sheehan attended Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport. She went on to work with Tampa defense attorney Barry Cohen and to open her own practice.

"I've known Tracy all her professional life," Cohen said Saturday. "She made a mistake, and consistent with her great value system, she is stepping up to the plate and accepting responsibility as I would expect Tracy to do."

If convicted, Sheehan could face up to nine months in jail, a $2,000 fine and have her driver's license revoked for up to a year.

"I take drunk driving very seriously," she said in statement released Saturday afternoon, "and accept full responsibility for my actions and any penalty that comes my way in this matter."

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected].

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