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Lawsuit says St. Petersburg police pursuit partly to blame for man's death

ST. PETERSBURG — The girlfriend of a St. Petersburg man killed in a crash on Interstate 275 two years ago claims in a lawsuit that a police pursuit is partly to blame for the man's death.

Shekera Howard of St. Petersburg says in documents filed in Pinellas Circuit Court that St. Petersburg police committed several missteps on Feb. 24, 2009, leading to the death of Tyrone D. Dudley, who was 26. Howard is suing the city and the car's driver, Tommy K. Walls, 26, for wrongful death, citing loss of income and funeral and medical expenses. Dudley is the father of five children under age 8 with Howard.

But in their report of the incident, police say they never chased the Cadillac. A street crimes unit had observed the car in a known drug location earlier that evening, and while continuing to follow it police saw the driver commit several traffic infractions.

Police had seen the driver twice stop in an alley and talk to people there, then fail to come to a complete stop while leaving another alley, according to a report. Police then followed the car several miles to a Burger King at U.S. 19 and 38th Avenue N, where they tried to pull it over. When the car sped off, going east on 38th, police followed from a safe distance and without lights and sirens, according to the report.

The car jumped on I-275 southbound, where it reached 119 mph, ricocheted off a guardrail and crashed near the Fifth Avenue N exit, according to a Florida Highway Patrol report.

In court documents, Howard's attorney, Robert E. Heyman, says police had no probable cause to follow the 1998 Cadillac Catera other than to "satisfy their curiosity as to the identity of the driver and perhaps get a peek into the vehicle." Heyman argues in court papers that police pursued the Cadillac "until the rocketing pursued vehicle was launched onto the interstate … where it crashed two short exits later."

Neither man was wearing a seatbelt. Dudley was thrown from the front passenger seat and died of head wounds at Bayfront Medical Center. Walls was not badly hurt.

The department's chase policy at that time allowed officers to pursue a vehicle only when a violent felony was committed. Since then, the policy, once one of the region's most restrictive, has been loosened under Mayor Bill Foster. Foster made the issue part of his election platform and gave police more leeway in deciding when to chase. Officers can now chase burglars and serial car thieves.

Both Mike Puetz, a spokesman for the Police Department, and city attorneys declined to comment on the litigation.

Walls remains in the Pinellas County Jail on charges of vehicular homicide, fleeing and eluding a law enforcement officer and causing serious injury or death, and drug possession.

Both Walls and Dudley had criminal records before the crash. Walls had convictions in 2003 for possession of cocaine, resisting an officer without violence, and fleeing and eluding a police officer. Dudley pleaded no contest in 2001 to charges of fleeing and eluding a police officer and reckless driving. Two years later, he was convicted of possessing marijuana and methamphetamine with intent to sell.

Lawsuit says St. Petersburg police pursuit partly to blame for man's death 04/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 2, 2011 4:30am]
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