Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Public safety

Pinellas deputy accused of abrasive behavior in DUI cases wants back on patrol

LARGO — John Hubbard says he tirelessly worked to rid the streets of drunken drivers.

But prosecutors have said the Pinellas County deputy was abrasive during traffic stops and incorrectly performed a key DUI test. The Sheriff's Office took him off patrol and reassigned him to a job inside the courthouse.

Hubbard, 48, acknowledges that he can be strict, even intense, but says his approach can prompt suspects to confess.

"I'm not Officer Friendly," he said. "But I treat all people the same way; I am very fair."

Hubbard will try to convince an administrative law judge of that next week in an effort to overturn his reassignment.

A graduate of Hernando High School, Hubbard joined the Sheriff's Office in 1987. He quickly worked his way up to detective, then sergeant.

However, he was demoted to patrol in 2009 after being accused of creating a hostile working environment. Colleagues told internal affairs investigators that Hubbard made derogatory and stereotypical comments about women, blacks, homosexuals and supervisors.

Hubbard says the conflict stemmed from a conversation he had with a gay deputy in which he shared his belief that homosexuality is a sin.

Despite the setback, Hubbard says he decided to stand out as a top performer — particularly with DUI arrests.

A sergeant taught him how to conduct field sobriety tests, handle blood alcohol levels and scan suspects' eyes with a light. The latter is a test called HGN, which looks for eye movements characteristic of drunkenness.

He says he became a go-to deputy when it came to DUI cases, with other deputies often calling him for help.

Problems arose, however, when some of his cases got to court.

Hubbard sometimes conducted the HGN test incorrectly, prosecutors told the Sheriff's Office, because he moved the light back and forth too quickly.

During this testing, Hubbard often engaged in running commentary about how the tests proved people were drunk, according to videos of some of his arrests.

After reviewing videos that showed Hubbard aggressively questioning drivers, Assistant State Attorney Holly Grissinger told a sheriff's lieutenant that Hubbard "really needs to be retrained in DUIs or he needs to stop doing them."

"I felt … if the public saw those videos that they would have a huge problem with his behavior, and how he treated people during a criminal investigation," she said in a deposition.

The Sheriff's Office investigated Hubbard and concluded that in some videos of his DUI stops, "you were found to be demeaning and abrasive toward the citizens who were performing the Field Sobriety Tests that you were administrating."

In one case, Hubbard arrested a man for assault, and prosecutors decided to drop the charge because video showed Hubbard "engaged in a running commentary with the defendant about his use of alcohol" and telling him "you are drunk off your a- -." But the defendant already pleaded guilty before prosecutors could formally drop the charge.

Hubbard also was faulted for making an "inappropriate and unprofessional" comment to an assistant state attorney.

And sheriff's investigators concluded that "several of your DUI investigations lacked important/sufficient information to prosecute," which led to some dismissals or reductions in charges.

As a result of the internal affairs investigation, Hubbard received a four-week suspension, a transfer from patrol to the courthouse, and an evaluation of his "fitness for duty."

Hubbard defends his methods and doesn't believe they hurt cases. By his count, 92 percent of his cases resulted in pleas or convictions, although some pleas were to reduced charges.

"Does that sound like a problem child?" he said.

Hubbard's two-day administrative hearing is set to begin Aug. 9. If he wins, Hubbard says, he would like to work patrol for two years, then retire. On patrol, he earned a lot of overtime and could take a cruiser home — neither perk available with his 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. bailiff job.

Besides, he says, he wants to arrest drunks and possibly save lives.

Bay News 9 reporter Josh Rojas contributed to this report.

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