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Did deputy show favoritism to fellow lawmen?

TARPON SPRINGS — The silver Dodge Charger flew by at 98 mph.

A Pinellas sheriff's sergeant made a U-turn and followed as the car weaved around vehicles in a no-passing zone, finally stopping 20 yards short of an intersection.

As Sgt. John Daniels pulled up, the passenger stood outside the Dodge's door, urinating. The driver admitted he had been drinking and declined a breath test.

The two men were Pasco sheriff's deputies. Daniels let them go without so much as a ticket.

Now all three are under investigation.

• • •

Neither Pasco nor Pinellas officials would comment about the incident, which occurred about 1 a.m. Sunday at Keystone and McMullen-Booth roads. They cited state law prohibiting them from talking about open internal investigations.

Deputy Jose Berrios, the 25-year-old driver, is on desk duty. His passenger, Deputy Kurt Hentschel, 24, remains on regular duty. Both are relatively new to the Pasco agency and their internal affairs files contain only letters of appreciation.

Daniels, 50, is a decorated deputy in Pinellas, where he has almost 30 years on the force.

In 1996, records show, he completed the Mothers Against Drunk Driving Death Notification Seminar.

• • •

According to Daniels' report, Berrios and Hentschel quickly told him they were Pasco deputies. Berrios said the two had been out drinking and were on their way home, according to the report. He estimated that he'd had one or two drinks.

Daniels noted in his report that Berrios also smelled like alcohol and had glassy eyes.

Those facts, combined with Berrios' speed and Hentschel's urination, would usually lead an officer to direct the driver to perform field sobriety tests, said longtime DUI defense attorney Bob Attridge of New Port Richey.

"It's just automatic," Attridge said.

Pinellas' procedure for a DUI stop suggests the same. The tests should be conducted, it says, "if reasonable suspicion exists."

Daniels' report makes no mention of such tests. Instead, he told Berrios he "would like to give him a portable breath test," a field test that only indicates whether the person has been drinking. It is different from the Breathalyzer, which measures blood-alcohol content.

If Berrios failed the portable breath test, he would "simply have to call someone" to pick him up; if he passed, he could drive home, the report says.

Is such a choice commonly given to drivers suspected of driving drunk?

"If it had been you, me or anyone else, we'd have been on the side of the road doing gymnastics," said Bill Eble, a Dade City defense attorney, referring to sobriety tests.

Berrios declined to take the portable breath test — but unlike the Breathalyzer, there is no penalty for refusing to take it.

In this case, Berrios told Daniels he "preferred to just call somebody to come and pick them up."

While they waited, Daniels contacted a Pasco sheriff's lieutenant, who asked him to document the incident.

• • •

No one from the Pasco agency went to the scene to investigate Berrios' conduct, so his blood-alcohol level will never be known. Pasco spokesman Kevin Doll said such tests are part of criminal investigations, not administrative ones.

"We're not going to tell (Pinellas) how to do their investigations," Doll said.

Daniels cleared the matter as "case closed, solved non-criminal."

Pinellas officials, who had initially said there would be no followup, said later Thursday that they were investigating Daniels.

Attridge, the attorney, came to this conclusion about the two Pasco deputies: "They got a break. They got favoritism because they were law enforcement."

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report.

Did deputy show favoritism to fellow lawmen? 09/24/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 30, 2008 3:55pm]
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