TALLAHASSEE — Rep. Matt Gaetz recently held himself out as a man who accepts responsibility for his mistakes.
He brought up his 2008 DUI arrest during a meeting last week of the House criminal justice committee, which he chairs. The topic: a bill that would keep mug shots of people who are charged with crimes off the Internet until they are convicted.
Though he was never convicted, his booking photo is readily available online, Gaetz said.
"I'm of the view that that is part of who I am," said the Fort Walton Beach Republican, who in 2016 will seek the seat now held by his father, Senate President Don Gaetz. "I made bad decisions that resulted in an arrest, and that is sort of something that we all live with."
The bill passed the committee unanimously. Gaetz said such exposure could be a problem for those unaccustomed to publicity.
But as it turns out, notoriety is about the worst consequence Gaetz, now 31, has faced from the DUI arrest.
He didn't have his license suspended for a year when he refused the breath test — as Florida law dictates. And he didn't have that refusal used against him in a criminal proceeding. Charges against Gaetz were dismissed after events that included, among other things, the forced resignation of the arresting officer.
• • •
It was the night before Halloween in 2008 when Gaetz, then 26, drove back from the Swamp, a nightclub on Okaloosa Island. He drove a 2001 BMW SUV registered to his state senator dad.
Near midnight, Okaloosa County Deputy Chris Anglin clocked Gaetz going 48 in a 35 mph zone. Anglin later reported that Gaetz fumbled for his license and registration, his eyes were watery and bloodshot, and he swayed and staggered when he got out of the car.
Smelling alcohol, Anglin asked Gaetz if he had been drinking. Gaetz replied no. Minutes later, he admitted he had consumed two beers. Twice, Anglin conducted an eye test. Twice, Gaetz's eyes didn't follow the prompt.
Gaetz, who had recently begun practicing law, declined any field sobriety tests. He was arrested and refused the breath test.
Another deputy inspected the SUV, but found no alcohol. He did find two bottles of mouthwash. The one in the glove box was empty. The one on the floor board was a quarter full.
• • •
Three days after Gaetz was arrested, his attorney Drew Pinkerton told the Northwest Florida Daily News that the sheriff's case was weak. He said he wanted to review video from the cameras in the room where Gaetz was detained and from the patrol cars. But Pinkerton, who died of cancer in 2009, didn't refer to any video in his motion to dismiss the case.
Last year, the Sheriff's Office told the Times/Herald video from the room where Gaetz was held had been destroyed and Anglin's car had no camera. The camera in the other deputy's car was pointed away from Gaetz and Anglin, so that video is inconclusive.
The Gaetz arrest would be one of Anglin's last.
On Nov. 10, Anglin made a DUI arrest in Destin. An internal affairs report said that Anglin grabbed the suspect around the neck after he believed the suspect spit on him. But three other deputies, including a trainee, were there as well, and said the spitting was unintentional and that Anglin used unreasonable force. An internal affairs report agreed.
According to Anglin's personnel file, this was his fourth infraction, and third in a year.
"Mr. Anglin has lost the trust and confidence of his supervisors and co-workers alike," wrote Maj. Larry Ashley in his recommendation to fire Anglin.
Anglin, who resigned four days after receiving Ashley's letter, declined to comment.
• • •
More than a week after Anglin quit, the prosecutor asked to be taken off the case, because his stepson was friends with Gaetz. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist's office assigned the case to Steve Meadows, the state attorney for the neighboring circuit.
Less than a week later, Gaetz had his driver's license reinstated. A field officer for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles declared there was no evidence that Gaetz refused a breath test. Yet the refusal was clearly documented in Anglin's affidavit and arrest report.
It even was documented in Pinkerton's Dec. 18 motion to dismiss charges against Gaetz.
This three-page document, which Gaetz signed, states there was no evidence that he had been impaired. There was no mention of many of Anglin's observations suggesting that Gaetz was impaired.
It added a new detail: "A civilian witness drove by who knew (Gaetz) and observed no indication of impairment."
Yet the witness was not named, either in Pinkerton's document or other case records at the Okaloosa County Clerk's Office. Still, this anonymous testimony is all that contradicted Anglin's conclusion that there was probable cause to arrest Gaetz on DUI.
Meadows accepted Pinkerton's motion and agreed to drop the case on Dec. 22, 2008.
Gaetz wouldn't answer the Times/Herald's questions about the case. Contacted Monday, he dismissed the story as an example of tabloid journalism.
Meadows is now a Panama City DUI attorney. When reached Monday, he said he vaguely remembered the case, but refused to comment further.
In a Dec. 24, 2008, Daily News story, Gaetz said Anglin had harassed him.
"I was suspicious when he said, 'I know who you are and I know who your father is,' " Gaetz told the newspaper. " 'This will be very embarrassing for you if you don't do what I say.' "
It's not clear from the article if Anglin was contacted to refute this serious allegation, which was never mentioned in Pinkerton's motion to dismiss the charges.
Gaetz did talk then about the case, touting the dropped charges as proof he was innocent.
"I'm just pleased the truth has come out," he told the Daily News reporter in 2008.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]