Monday, June 18, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: The trooper, the ticket and the tattletale

Sidney L. Matthew, the Matlock of Apalachee Parkway, was miffed but hardly surprised.

He's practiced law for a long time in our state's capital. And so the barrister speaks with some authority when he muses: "Tallahassee is a place where a compass never points to true north."

If you didn't know any better, judging from the bulging docket of orders, depositions, hearing testimony, evidence, records and filings, you might well conclude the legal swirl around Charles Swindle was the crime of the century — Bernie Madoff meets Whitey Bulger meets the Clinton impeachment trial.

But no, all the paperwork, all the time put in by lawyers, all the hand-wringing dates back to a simple traffic stop on Nov. 19, 2012, by Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Charles Swindle over a $10 ticket. Think of this as The Dufus Affair.

It was on that day that Swindle stopped state Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Stool Pigeon, for speeding 87 mph along I-10. But because McBurney is a member of the Florida House, the officer followed a longtime unwritten policy of cutting breaks to elected officials and let the politician off with a $10 citation for not having proof of insurance rather than issuing a speeding ticket, which would have cost McBurney, R-Snitch, a $251 fine.

That should have been that. Except the led-footed Judas of Jacksonville complained about his special treatment to Swindle's bosses, who fired the officer.

Swindle appealed his firing and retained Matthew to plead his case before the Public Employees Relations Commission. This should have been a no-brainer, a Tallahassee specialty. After all, Matthew argued the FHP has what is called a "quid pro quo leniency policy" to butter up legislator scofflaws and that it is discreetly part of trooper recruit training.

Matthew had plenty of evidence on his side. Sgt. Gary Dawson, Swindle's supervisor at the time of the McBurney, R-Toyko Rose of Tallahassee, traffic stop testified the policy existed and was widely followed by troopers.

Hearing officer Gregg Morton apparently viewed it the same way, too. Morton ruled the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles had over-reacted in its draconian punishment of Swindle. Morton ruled Swindle should receive a 120-hour suspension without pay (which he had already served) followed by reinstatement.

And that should have been that, more than penalty enough for the bureaucratic crime the equivalent of putting ketchup on a hotdog. But now Swindle finds himself in a Catch-22 of paper-pushing.

As Matthew explained, while Swindle gets his job back, PERC also argued the trooper's conduct was "unlawful, dishonest, and not worthy of mitigation." All over a $10 citation.

But Swindle was merely following an unwritten policy — approved by Dawson — that countless other officers had engaged in without being subjected to any discipline. Or, as Matthew put it, Charles Swindle is guilty of violating a policy that officially doesn't exist. It is noteworthy that during Swindle's hearing, the FHP never called any witnesses of it own.

Swindle's only "crime" was engaging in behavior that has been winked and nodded at by the FHP for many years. Does anyone believe the upper brass at the FHP weren't aware troopers sometimes gave air kisses to speeding big shots and did nothing about it? How dishonest is that?

The officer's bad luck was stopping the only pinched elected official in Florida who was a bigger tattletale than the National Enquirer.

By Matthew's reasoning, Swindle has his job back but has been smeared by PERC as an unlawful, dishonest law enforcement officer. And if he even shows up for work with a button out of place, he risks being fired again.

"They're setting him up," the lawyer said.

Matthew plans to appeal PERC's characterization of Swindle's reputation. In the meantime, just to be safe, perhaps Swindle should be assigned to very quietly patrol the lean streets of Lower Two Egg.

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