Heavy fog descended around Brooksville as off-duty sheriff's Deputy Marc Lucier drove his patrol cruiser east on Cortez Boulevard. Beer and a dose of NyQuil cough syrup coursed through his system.
Another car stopped suddenly in his path. Lucier swerved right and smashed into a tree, totaling the cruiser.
Lucier was driving too fast for the conditions that night in January 1997, investigators said. He later was fired when tests revealed his blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit.
But Lucier was not arrested and never received a ticket. Not for speeding. Not for careless driving. Not for DUI.
The incident is an extreme example of a common trend in Hernando County. Cops don't often give other cops tickets.
In fact, in the past 10 years, not one of the current 158 sworn deputies has received a ticket from another deputy since joining the force, a Times investigation found. In that decade, only two of the current deputies were ticketed at all _ and they were nabbed by another law enforcement agency.
Authorities claim that deputies are better drivers and do not often get pulled over.
But in the 10 years the Times examined, 30 of the deputies had received tickets before joining the force. That's only a slightly lower average than the general population.
And Hernando deputies average 33 on-duty crashes a year. In about 40 percent of those crashes, the deputies were at least partly at fault, Sheriff's Office records show. But in 10 years, only one of the current deputies received a ticket for an on-duty crash, and that was for an accident in which a Spring Hill couple were killed. Numbers like these sound like blatant favoritism to Richard Taylor, who was cited for speeding 9 mph over the limit in a 45 mph zone. If he were an off-duty deputy, he never would have received the ticket, the fine and the blemish on his driving record, Taylor said.
"It's not a coincidence. They have badges and we don't," he said. "That lets them get away with what we can't."
"It's a common practice'
Sgt. Lanny Corlew, who supervises the 12-person traffic unit, acknowledged that flashing a badge can weigh in whether a deputy writes a ticket. But it's just one of many factors and is seldom used, he said.
"We don't pull each other over very often," he said.
At least one of the full-time traffic deputies had a different perspective. Deputy Perry Flinn, a 14-year veteran, said it's common to pull over a car and not realize that the driver is an off-duty law officer.
"We're stopping each other all the time," he said.
But they don't write each other tickets.
"That's called professional courtesy," said Flinn.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Flinn clocked a car traveling 71 mph in a 55 mph zone on Spring Hill Drive. The deputy walked up to the car, talked briefly to the driver, gave him a verbal warning and returned to his cruiser.
"State corrections officer," he said.
Flinn said law enforcement officers could find their careers threatened if they have traffic tickets on their records. It's the same reason, he said, that he gives military personnel and pizza-delivery drivers breaks, too.
The lack of tickets issued to law enforcement officers, and comments like Flinn's, were not a surprise to professors and former law officers who study police culture and procedures.
For the most part, the days of covering up for corrupt officers are on the wane, but traffic tickets remain an area where law officers are willing to give a colleague a break, they said.
"It's a common practice _ one that has deep roots," said James Fyfe, a former New York Police Department lieutenant who has worked with Hillsborough and Pinellas county agencies on litigation issues.
But the practice worries Fyfe, now a Temple University criminology professor. "(It) can undermine the public's confidence in law enforcement, " he said.
Most people, especially those on the wrong end of a ticket, want justice dispensed equally, he said. They don't want to feel as if certain people are exempt from the law.
Which is how Peter Lee Lucy feels.
The Spring Hill resident and his wife were driving on Shoal Line Boulevard in 1995 when an on-duty deputy slammed into the back of their Honda. The car spun nearly 180 degrees, narrowly missing nearby pedestrians. Lucy's wife was taken to the hospital with neck pain. Deputy Morris Porton's patrol cruiser sustained $2,727 in damage, yet he did not receive a ticket.
Two years later, Lucy ran a stop sign.
"I don't hold any grudges. But if I rear-ended a sheriff's deputy, I would have got a ticket," Lucy said. "It's just a situation where people who work together help each other out."
Training and peer pressure
Sheriff Tom Mylander doesn't buy the professional courtesy argument. He acknowledged that it exists but credited the lack of tickets his deputies received on superior training and a better understanding of the rules of the road than the average driver.
Deputies complete four days of classroom and practical driver training at the mandatory four-month officer certification school. The Sheriff's Office renews some of the training every two years.
"We take driving very seriously," Mylander said.
How did the 30 current deputies who received tickets before joining the force avoid further citation once they signed up? It's a group, after all, that included 13 who received at least two tickets and one deputy who was ticketed the day before his first shift.
Mylander chalks it up to the training and peer pressure. More experienced deputies will admonish the ones who think carrying a badge gives them license to drive poorly. And all the deputies know their livelihoods depend on being able to drive, he said.
"Anyone who might have been a bit immature grows up quickly," he said. "They learn that citations could really hurt their records."
But the peer pressure is a two-way street.
Deputies told the Times they know they can damage colleagues' careers, or at least subject them to embarrassment, if they write them a ticket. The pressure not to rock the boat remains strong.
Deputy Mike Glatfelter understands the pressure. He recently wrote up two jail officers for drunken driving. Glatfelter said he would never let a drunk driver go no matter who they were, but still he has felt some fallout.
"There were hints that maybe I should have driven them home," he said.
It's a classic example, Fyfe said. Law officers who shake up the brotherhood often feel the repercussions.
"Why write a guy a ticket if your life may depend on him in the future?" he said.
"Tickets are tickets'
If deputies are getting out of tickets, it's for the same reason a lot of other drivers are let off, said Corlew and Mylander. Deputies have a lot of discretion when it comes to writing tickets.
Among their choices: verbal and written warnings _ popular alternatives, Corlew said, as deputies likely issue as many warnings as they do tickets.
"Just like the deputies do with regular drivers, they can use their discretion and let deputies they pull over go with a warning," he said.
If that's the case, it's not a common practice, at least not with the written ones. Not one of the current deputies received a written warning out of 892 handed out in the first six months of 1998, the Times found.
A very thin line separates discretionary, flexible law enforcement from becoming capricious and discriminatory, said University of Florida law and criminology professor Fred Shenkman. Not writing tickets or warnings to other deputies suggests that the line may have been crossed, Shenkman said.
"If they don't follow the law . . . it becomes a farce, like Abbott and Costello do law enforcement. No one knows the rules," he said. "That's when discretion becomes dangerous."
It can also be a sign of a more endemic problem, Shenkman said.
"If deputies let each other off on tickets, what else are they overlooking?" he said.
Local law enforcement authorities explained that many law officers found at fault in an accident do not get a ticket because they face internal punishment from their department.
The Sheriff's Office's accident review board can recommend sanctions ranging from a verbal warning to dismissal, depending on the number and severity of crashes. Most get off with verbal or written reprimands or a one-day suspension.
Writing a ticket on top of the internal punishment amounts to penalizing the officer twice, said Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Greg LaMont, whose department investigates most crashes involving on-duty sheriff's deputies.
"That's not fair," he said.
Mylander echoes the sentiment. Take Lucier, the deputy who smashed his patrol car into the tree, as an example, he said.
"He lost his job and probably will never work in law enforcement again," he said. "That's strong action to take."
The civilian world isn't any different, said Case Western University law professor Lewis Katz, author of Know Your Rights, a book about the legal system.
"Civilians who get caught drunk driving can lose their jobs as well," Katz said.
And for less-serious tickets, they pay fines, get points on their licenses, are hit with higher insurance rates, and might lose a day's pay if they go to court, he said.
An officer can avoid all of that and get off with a verbal warning or no punishment at all.
"Crashes are crashes. Tickets are tickets," he said. "Why should deputies be treated any different?"
Times photojournalist Maurice Rivenbark contributed to this report.