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Clearwater officers disciplined for failure to report fellow officer who drove drunk

“Our officers made some mistakes in this case,” police Chief Tony Holloway said.
Published Apr. 30, 2014

CLEARWATER — In the early morning hours of Jan. 23, police received three calls about a drunken driver seen stumbling out of a beach bar and later swerving on Clearwater Memorial Causeway.

"I watched a guy who could barely walk get into his car," one caller told a dispatcher.

Moments later, Clearwater police Sgt. David Young stopped the Chevy Camaro at Hercules Avenue and Marilyn Street. Police Sgt. Sean Allaster also responded.

Together, they approached the driver's side of the car and recognized the man behind the wheel.

It was Clearwater Officer Nicholas Capogna.

They didn't conduct a field sobriety test. Instead, the sergeants decided to take him home, according to internal affairs records released to the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday.

After a three-month investigation, Capogna will be suspended for five days, while Allaster and Young will each receive one-day suspensions. Their disciplinary actions are pending final approval from the city's human resources department.

Because of the incident, the Police Department is creating a policy requiring every officer to conduct field sobriety tests if they suspect a driver is intoxicated, Clearwater police Chief Tony Holloway said. The tests are currently up to officers' discretion, and they sometimes have opted to call a taxi for an impaired driver.

The policy also would require officers to report any city employees they stop for impaired driving.

"Our officers made some mistakes in this case," Holloway said in a statement, "and we are taking steps to correct that."

Young and Allaster did not report Capogna's impaired driving to the department. Police internal affairs learned of the traffic stop from a comment posted on the department's Facebook page four days after the incident by one of several witnesses who spotted Capogna drinking and then driving that night.

According to internal affairs documents, Capogna met Officer Chris Livernois at the Brown Boxer Pub & Grille on Mandalay Avenue for drinks about 10:30 p.m. Jan. 22. Both were off duty. Video surveillance at the bar shows Livernois leaving about 1:30 a.m.

Capogna, 29, stayed until closing at 3 a.m., reports stated. Taxi driver Jonathan Mulholland, who posted the Facebook comment, told investigators Capogna was "stumbling" while he walked to his car. Another witness described the officer as "buzzed," according to records.

Other witnesses reported that Capogna, driving his personal car, nearly slammed into the back of a taxi on Court Street before swerving into the next lane, records show.

Capogna was later pulled over. Young, 48, and Allaster, 43, told investigators they could tell Capogna had been drinking, but neither conducted a field sobriety test. Three other officers responded to the traffic stop. The sergeants told two of them to leave, but asked Officer Robert Pease to move Capogna's car out of the road, according to records.

After that, Allaster drove Capogna, who smelled of alcohol, home.

Capogna said he drank four Bud Lights, one tequila shot and one whiskey shot before driving that night.

"I knew I was too far into the gray area and that the perception of me leaving the bar after drinking was wrong altogether," he told investigators. "The whole ordeal is embarrassing, regrettable and unfortunate."

During an internal affairs interview, Young said taking Capogna home was "nothing we haven't done with any citizen."

"We utilized our discretion that night to make a decision based off of what we had at that time," Allaster said in another interview.

Capogna, Young and Allaster could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

In addition to his suspension, Capogna must undergo random drug and alcohol testing for "an undetermined time" and receive counseling. He also won't be able to use his take-home patrol car for a year, police said.

Allaster and Young were hired in 1990 and neither has been disciplined in the past. Capogna, who was hired in 2008, has previously been investigated for damaging his patrol car, records show.

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Laura C. Morel can be reached at lmorel@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157. Follow @LauraCMorel on Twitter.

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