Friday, May 25, 2018
Opinion

Ruth column: Living in the land of nod (and winks)

It was always the 800-pound piece of balderdash in the room.

When Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Charles Swindle cut a lead-footed state legislator a break in November by issuing a minor $10 citation for not having proof of insurance rather than a more expensive speeding ticket, the officer thought he was toeing the agency's unspoken long brown line that it is a really good idea not to irritate elected officials who vote on the FHP's budget.

Unless you are more naive than Gomer Pyle meets Beaver Cleaver, it should hardly come as a shock the FHP has an unwritten, wink-wink, nod-nod policy giving troopers broad discretion when it comes to handing out speeding tickets to big shots.

The policy still would be couched in Greta Garbo-esque opaqueness, had the object of Swindle's generosity, state Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Judas, not informed on the trooper to his FHP bosses.

McBurney, R-Tattletale, whined about the $10 ticket, and Swindle, an officer with glowing evaluations including several Trooper of the Month awards, was fired from his job. Sure, go ahead. Take a moment to slap your forehead. Everybody else is.

Swindle appealed his dismissal, retaining the services of Sidney Matthew, the Atticus Finch of Tallahassee. Think of this as "To Kill a Mocking Bureaucracy."

Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles director Julie Jones, who oversees the FHP, was adamant that absolutely, positively and cross her heart, no unwritten policy exists that allowed troopers to blow air kisses at lawmakers as they nursed their inner Mario Andrettis.

This is akin to Gen. Custer insisting: "Indians! What Indians? I don't see any Indians."

Cue the laugh track.

Apparently Jones was the only state employee who didn't know the Florida Highway Patrol has a secret handshake understanding to cut the speed racers of the Capitol a break if they feel like it.

In testimony before Public Employee Relations Commission hearing officer Gregg Morton, recently retired Sgt. Gary Dawson, Swindle's supervisor on the day that McBurney, R-Canary, was stopped, readily admitted that a "Quid Pro Quo Leniency Policy" exists and is a discreet part of the training.

On the day McBurney, R-Quidnunc, was stopped on I-10 going 87 mph in a 70 mph zone, Swindle consulted with Dawson and received his approval to cite the soon-to-be ungrateful lawmaker on a considerably lesser infraction.

The self-righteous Jacksonville politician had an opportunity to insist Swindle issue him a speeding ticket. Instead, he went along with the scofflaw charade only to raise his indignation later. Now there's a stand-up chap for you.

Morton, in his ruling that the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles had overreacted in disciplining the trooper, wrote that Swindle never should have been fired.

"I believe Trooper Swindle was in a no-win situation," Morton noted, adding the officer was endeavoring to make a quick decision in accordance "with the agency's unwritten policy of professional courtesy toward legislators." So perhaps Swindle made a mistake by not following strict rules in writing tickets, but he acted under a long-standing, albeit off-the-books, policy taught to him in training and approved by his immediate supervisor.

Morton sensibly recommended the more appropriate punishment for Swindle should be a 120-hour suspension (which he more than already served) without pay, followed by reinstatement.

Of course the full Public Employees Relations Commission still has to approve Morton's well-reasoned ruling. And this is Tallahassee after all, a mysterious land where reality often goes to die but keeps folks like Sidney Matthew busy.

Now that Jones must have figured out a Quid Pro Quo Leniency Policy does exist, it's a fair argument whether troopers should afford hotsy-tots like McBurney, R-The Iago of I-10, special consideration.

All law enforcement officers need some discretionary authority in order to do their jobs. But that latitude ought not to extend to singling out an entire class of people eligible for a free pass based on their political status.

Of this much we can be fairly certain. If you are Rep. Charles McBurney, R-The Tokyo Rose of Tallahassee, once Trooper Swindle gets back into uniform, it might be a good idea to consider getting to work by boat.

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