Thursday, February 22, 2018
Public safety

Cuba policy activist Al Fox raises questions over DUI stop

TAMPA — For the second time this year, Tampa police's top DUI officer has been involved in a drunken driving stop that has the person arrested claiming conspiracy.

First it was Tampa lawyer C. Philip Campbell, whose attorneys say his Jan. 23 arrest was a setup involving Sgt. Ray Fernandez.

Now Al Fox, an outspoken activist for normalized American relations with Cuba, says he plans legal action over his Feb. 21 arrest.

Fox, 69, was pulled over by Fernandez just after midnight for driving 63 mph in a 45 mph zone on N Dale Mabry Highway, just north of W Hillsborough Avenue, police reports said.

Fernandez called Officer Dean Uno to administer field sobriety tests. Uno arrested Fox after he said Fox failed tests of walking in a straight line and maintaining balance on one foot.

Fox said he failed the tests because he is an old man. He says he had two sips of a beer that night as he played poker at Derby Lane in St. Petersburg. He blew a 0.000 blood alcohol level, twice, records show, at the Hillsborough County Jail, and his urine tested clean. He was released from jail about noon the next day, he said.

Last week, the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office decided not to pursue the charge, citing "insufficient evidence."

Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy countered any claims of conspiracy by Fernandez, a 19-year veteran who oversees a squad of DUI officers.

Fernandez and Uno had been in that area writing speeding tickets for an hour, she said, so they couldn't have been following Fox.

In an interview Thursday, Fox, who was joined by attorney Joe Lopez, said he thinks something other than public safety motivated the officers. Fox has made enemies with his advocacy of ending the trade embargo and travel restrictions to Cuba.

Fox says Uno acknowledged knowing him that night.

"I recognize you," Uno said at the jail, according to Fox. "You're that Cuba guy, aren't you? You do that Cuba stuff."

"I took it to mean you're that Castro-loving commie, aren't you?" Fox said.

Lopez said he intends to file a federal lawsuit against the city for violation of Fox's civil rights. He called the actions of Fernandez and Uno "suspicious."

Lopez and Fox have no evidence linking Fernandez to Fox's enemies but think city officers need new guidelines for determining whom to arrest for DUI.

In a report, Fernandez wrote he observed Fox "to have glassy eyes, very slurred speech and had the distinct odor of an alcoholic beverage on his breath."

Lopez's replies: Fox was wearing glasses that night, his speech does not sound slurred in the video of sobriety tests, and Fernandez must have had an amazing sense of smell to detect less than one beer on Fox's breath.

Fox had not been arrested in Florida previously, records show.

He said he had other new experiences that night, including being handcuffed, put into the back of a squad car, shackled to other men and strip-searched twice. "It was the worst 12 hours of my life," he said. "The whole time, I was thinking, if they can do that to me, what can they do to people not from my socioeconomic level?"

McElroy said it would have been impossible for the officers to target a specific car and driver from their position.

"Sgt. Fernandez is a very well-respected DUI supervisor who has an excellent track record with the department. It's unfortunate that one high-profile case can taint 20 years of an impressive career," she said.

That case was the DUI stop of the lawyer Campbell, who was in the midst of representing Todd "MJ Kelli" Shnitt in his lawsuit against fellow shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem. An attorney for the opposition called Fernandez and tipped him off about a potential drunk driver leaving a restaurant where Campbell was unwittingly sharing drinks with a young female paralegal.

That DUI arrest is being investigated by the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, appointed when Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober recused himself after having to testify in the Shnitt-Love Sponge trial.

Times news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

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Published: 02/22/18