Thursday, February 22, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: The ticket that turned into a pink slip

It's merely an idle guess, but do you suppose that when he was in grade school Charles McBurney was the kind of child who would raise his hand just before class let out Friday afternoon to remind the teacher she had forgotten to assign homework for the weekend?

It was Rep. McBurney, R-Stoolie, who cost Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Charles Swindle his job after he complained the officer opted not to write a $250 speeding ticket last November when the lawmaker was clocked going 87 in a 70 mph zone on I-10.

Instead, Swindle handed McBurney, who had a license plate identifying him as a state legislator, a $10 wink-wink/nod-nod fine for not having proof of insurance, along with a warning to slow down.

Forgive me if my Chicago is showing a bit here. But if a highway patrolman uses his discretion to cut a you a break on a traffic violation, the customary thing to do is to thank him for his patriotic service to the republic and then shut up.

But not ol' Charlie McBurney, R-The Fink of the Florida Legislature. Tallahassee's answer to The Departed informed on Swindle to the trooper's superiors, complaining to FHP Col. David Brierton that he did not appreciate receiving special treatment from Swindle.

Swindle was accused of conduct unbecoming a public employee and falsely giving out tickets for offenses motorists did not commit. As it turned out, McBurney noted he did indeed have his proof of insurance on his person during the traffic stop.

How proud McBurney, R-Tattletale, must feel for ruining a law enforcement officer's career over a run of the mill speeding ticket, or lack thereof.

If you want to get all high and mighty and pious, what Swindle did — in the immortal words of Richard Nixon — was wrong. He should have strictly followed FHP procedure and written the legislator a ticket for having a lead foot.

But, with the exception of McBurney, R-Canary, we also know we live in the real world. Of course police officers, sheriff's deputies and state troopers often exercise broad discretion in deciding whether to write a ticket for a traffic infraction. This wasn't as if the officer was letting Pablo Escobar off with a warning to slow down smuggling all that cocaine.

While his superiors are denying it, Swindle has insisted the FHP adhered to a formal — albeit unwritten — understanding to cut some slack to legislators stopped for various traffic violations. In the case involving McBurney, R-Snitch, Swindle told FHP investigators that he had informed and received approval from his boss, Sgt. Gary Dawson, to give the representative a break.

FHP and Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles officials went into full Capt. Renault mode insisting they were shocked, shocked that anyone would claim there was a policy to hand out free passes to elected officials. But isn't that the beauty of unwritten policies?

If McBurney, R-"I'm Gonna Tell Mom!," was oh so offended by Swindle's botched effort to, as the officer put it, "be nice," there was absolutely nothing preventing the Diogenes of Apalachee Parkway from simply informing the trooper: "Look, I really appreciate you wanting to spare me a traffic court hassle, but I must insist you go ahead and write a ticket, because I am an elected official and I can't run the risk of being seen receiving special consideration."

But that might have been problematic, too. After all, while McBurney, R-Simon Pure, took umbrage at being offered a chance to duck a $250 speeding ticket, this is the same gladhander who happily collected nearly $70,000 in special interest campaign contributions from the financial industry, insurance, real estate, lawyers, lobbyists and health care concerns. Apparently McBurney is flexible in his aversion to special consideration.

Whatever Swindle's sins, having to turn in his badge seems a bit excessive, unless FHP was attempting to demonstrate it is getting tough on nice.

A suspension, or a firm tongue-lashing, or perhaps a transfer to Two Egg, would have sufficed as punishment for the trooper.

The same day Swindle stopped McBurney, he pulled over newly elected Democratic Rep. Mike Clelland of Lake Mary, who was also spared a speeding citation.

Apparently, Clelland had no complaints with Swindle's kindness.

That's the ticket.

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