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Wrongful-death lawsuit draws attention to a St. Petersburg police officer's past

ST. PETERSBURG — The family of a pedestrian struck and killed by a St. Petersburg police cruiser last year is suing the city.

The Police Department determined veteran Officer Steven J. Pugh wasn't to blame. The man had been drinking and ran into traffic. But as Pugh's actions that night come under new scrutiny, so does another incident from the veteran lawman's past: a 2007 DUI arrest that could have ended his career, but didn't.

Gulfport police said they found the off-duty officer drunk, asleep in a parked pickup at 3 a.m. with the engine running. His blood-alcohol level was 0.145 — nearly twice the level at which Florida law presumes impairment.

Then, months later, prosecutors dropped the charge. The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office said the evidence backed Pugh's story that he never intended to drive that night.

It's a story other defense attorneys say they've tried to tell on behalf of clients, but with far different results. "They don't do it for everyone," said St. Petersburg lawyer Jeffrey Brown.

• • •

Pugh, 48, became a St. Petersburg police officer in 1986. He's been on the K-9 unit for 14 years. His superiors praised him, writing that the dog handler is always ready to "seek out" criminals.

But his record is not spotless. In 1989, an off-duty Pugh borrowed a friend's motorcycle after a night of drinking and damaged it. He left it behind, according to a disciplinary report, and drove his own vehicle home. He was suspended for seven days for providing "false information" in that incident, the report said.

His record was then clear until February 2007. According to police reports, Pugh was out drinking with a friend and asked him for a ride home. Instead, that friend left him at a Gulfport bar.

Pugh called another friend for a ride but got no answer. He said he waited in his parked truck, but it was cold, in the 30s. He turned the key and ran the heater.

Just before 3 a.m., a Gulfport police officer woke him up with a knock on the window.

The Gulfport officer reported that the truck's automatic headlights were on. Pugh's foot was on the brake. When he asked Pugh for his driver's license and registration, the officer said, he was handed an empty envelope from Publishers Clearing House.

Pugh was polite and cooperative, police noted. He denied that he was going to drive home, saying he planned to sleep in the truck until he could safely drive.

He failed a field sobriety test and was taken to jail.

• • •

What persuaded prosecutors to drop the DUI?

The officer's attorney, Kevin Hayslett, said witnesses and other evidence showed that Pugh was, in fact, abandoned by one friend, that he tried to call another for a ride and that his truck never budged that night.

"We were able to corroborate the claim and it appeared that there was not any criminal intent to operate a vehicle under the influence," said Assistant State Attorney Kendall Davidson. "(These) cases are often not well received by juries in situations like this, where the car is lawfully parked. The ones that juries are receptive to are when someone falls asleep in the middle of an intersection."

Hayslett said he spent months corroborating his client's story.

"If I didn't have the independent witnesses that I had," he said, "this case wouldn't have been dismissed."

• • •

Defense attorneys contacted by the St. Petersburg Times said they've tried to get the state to believe similar stories. The charges might get reduced, they said, but rarely dropped.

"I've had clients who have argued the same thing and I have never had them drop my case," Brown said. "I've had to go to trial on some cases. I really do question whether this was done because he was an (officer)."

The State Attorney's Office denied that, as did Hayslett.

"Unequivocally, I will deny any favoritism was shown," said Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett.

Lawyers said they've had clients arrested for drunkenly sleeping in their vehicles, some with the keys in their pockets, or even sleeping in the back.

But if the facts warranted dismissal, New Port Richey attorney Sam Williams said he doesn't have a problem. In fact, he wants to see more decisions like it.

• • •

Typically after a St. Petersburg officer runs afoul of the law, they're put on restricted duty. After the state dropped the DUI charge in May 2007, Pugh was disciplined and returned to full duty.

But a chain of command board noted he could have done more to avoid his predicament: like call a fellow officer, or even a cab.

Pugh was reprimanded for "conduct unbecoming." He could not be reached for comment.

Two years later, on June 18, police said Terry Barnes, 24, died after running out in front of the officer's marked cruiser on 34th Street.

Hayslett said Pugh's case got more attention from him, and the state, because of the stakes. Some careers — airline pilot, UPS driver, police officer — cannot survive a DUI conviction.

"It's been my experience that state attorneys are extremely sensitive to the effect a DUI has on an individual's career," he said.

Bartlett denied that, too: "When someone's job is at stake, our position is that we should treat everyone equally."

Wrongful-death lawsuit draws attention to a St. Petersburg police officer's past 01/21/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 21, 2010 11:12pm]
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