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Law enforcement officers escape tickets

Published Aug. 24, 2005

You blow through a stop sign, slam into a car and injure the other driver. Automatic traffic ticket, right?

Maybe not.

Last week, a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy ran a stop sign and rammed another car. The other driver was taken to the hospital.

But Deputy Carole Frauenfeld didn't get a ticket.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said the deputy who was at the crash scene told her: "You don't cite people to punish them. You cite them to teach them something. In this case, the deputy knew what she did was wrong."

Hillsborough lets deputies decide whether to ticket other officers.

Some local agencies, including Tampa and St. Petersburg, go even further, exempting their on-duty officers from traffic tickets in crashes not involving alcohol or other criminal offenses.

Instead, they take care of it internally, investigating the crash and deciding whether employees should be disciplined. That gives officers a pass on the things that make civilian drivers grumble: points against their licenses, hefty fines and spikes in insurance rates.

Newly elected Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee changed his office's policy last month. It used to be deputies never wrote up their colleagues. Now traffic investigators have that option.

Still, he said, there are reasons deputies shouldn't be held to civilian standards.

For one thing, their duties are complicated.

"There are calls coming across the (deputy's laptop) computer, you have the radio, you have the deputy supposed to be constantly observing what's going on around them with expired tags" and looking for crooks, Gee said. "You have to consider the nature of the job."

Then, there's the impact on working relationships.

Who wants to issue a ticket, he asked, to the person who might be a backup on your next call? "There is an inherent conflict there," Gee said. "There's no way around it."

Last week Tampa police Chief Steve Hogue rear-ended a car as he got onto Interstate 75 from Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. Hogue shouldered the blame for a four-car fender bender, and the officer investigating the crash gave him a $120 citation for following too closely. But Hogue was not on duty, nor was he on patrol.

It is different for on-duty Tampa officers. They don't get traffic tickets for driving errors, but they face potential reprimands, suspensions, fines and the loss of an annual bonus, said spokeswoman Laura McElroy.

The Tampa police system mirrors the county's old policy. It keeps internal the investigation of accidents involving on-duty patrol officers.

When a collision involves death or serious injury, internal affairs investigates, McElroy said. Otherwise, it is investigated by the police district where the crash occurred. If officers are to blame, they might get a letter of counseling, a written reprimand or a suspension, McElroy said. They also might be ordered to pay a property damage fine of up to $350.

"If there's a crash while they are hurrying to get to a burglary, they may not pay the fine," she said. "If they were just driving along and hit someone, they may have to pay the maximum fine."

At-fault Tampa patrol officers also can lose their annual safe driver's bonus, which is equal to a full day's pay, for a total of three years.

The Florida Highway Patrol began ticketing its troopers about three years ago. Any trooper at fault in a crash gets one, same as the public, said FHP spokesman Larry Coggins.

There are some exceptions, Coggins said. For instance, if a trooper is involved in a crash while responding to an emergency call, the situation is reviewed first. But if a trooper on routine patrol rear-ends someone, he's getting a ticket, Coggins said.

The FHP also makes itself available to investigate crashes involving officers from other agencies. But troopers make it known that if the officer is at fault, the officer will be ticketed. "So most of them don't invite us to investigate," said Lt. Harold Frear.

The general policy of the St. Petersburg Police Department: no tickets. If an officer is involved in an on-duty traffic crash, the details are sent for internal review, and any discipline is metted out in-house, said police spokesman Bill Doniel.

Hillsborough sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter erroneously said last week that deputies don't ticket their colleagues because they are self-insured. On Tuesday, she said the insurance is a separate issue.

And even if a deputy gets a ticket, he or she still must go before an internal crash review board, said Hillsborough Sheriff Gee. Deputy Frauenfeld faces such a review, he said.

Frauenfeld, 43, who is a 15-year veteran with the office, drove through a stop sign at 26th Street and Lake Avenue last week. She wasn't answering a call at the time, Carter said.

Still, Gee said, deputies are constantly on the lookout for crime and suspicious behavior, while monitoring radios and computers.

Investigators consider those factors at the scene of the crash. But, he added, they also are allowed to cut civilians some slack.

"I apply an equal standard there," Gee said. "If I were to say all deputies should get a ticket, I would have to say, "Write all citizens a ticket.' "

Times staff writer Jamie Thompson contributed to this report.