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  1. Opinion

Ruth: Fast and furious along I-10

Published May 27, 2013

You could be forgiven if you thought there was an epidemic crime wave in Tallahassee with elected officials engaged in malicious, premeditated efforts to drive around without their proof of auto insurance.

At least that's the conclusion reached by Sidney Matthew, Tallahassee's Matlock, as he prepares a vigorous defense of recently de-badged Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Charles Swindle. That's the guy who found himself drummed out of the corps in a "Branded"-esque fashion after he cut a member of the Florida Legislature a break — wink — for a speeding ticket — wink — that never — nod — happened — nod.

You might remember the case of Jacksonville state Rep. Charles McBurney, R-The Valachi Papers, who started singing like a bird after Swindle stopped him flying down I-10 in November at 87 in a 70 mph zone.

When Swindle realized he had stopped a member of the Florida Legislature he decided to do McBurney a favor and, after checking with his supervisor, issued the lead-footed public official a $10 ticket for not having proof of insurance and a warning to slow down.

Unless you are more naive than Bullwinkle J. Moose, you probably aren't scandalized at the notion that a FHP trooper cut some slack to a member of a legislative body that votes on the FHP budget. Duh-squared.

And that should have been that. But McBurney suddenly discovered his inner Judas in going to Swindle's boss, FHP Col. David Brierton, to whine about the special treatment he had received.

Of course McBurney, R-Benedict Arnold, penned his indigent letter after driving off with just his $10 no proof of insurance fine rather than standing firm and insisting the trooper ticket him for the full extent of his speeding violation.

In short order, Swindle's FHP career came to an end with his firing. On Wednesday, Matthew will appeal the ex-trooper's dismissal before the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission. And the lawyer is more fired up than Mike Tyson finding himself in the ring opposite Pee Wee Herman.

Matthew intends to argue that the FHP adheres to an unwritten rule called "Quid Pro Quo Leniency Policy For Legislators" that is taught to new recruits and gives troopers broad discretion in issuing tickets to elected officials.

The FHP denies the "Quid Pro" rule exists. But as Matthew points out, judging from a multitude of no proof of insurance violations meted out to members of the Florida Legislature, troopers must possess extraordinary skills to divine elected officials zooming by them at 85 mph are not in possession of their insurance cards.

The same day McBurney, R-Fink, got his bloomers in a wad for not getting a speeding ticket, Swindle also stopped Rep. Mike Clelland, D-Hey, Thanks A Bunch, for going 87 in a 70 mph zone. Clelland too, was let off with a no proof of insurance card and no car registration. But he did not run to tell mommy how horribly he had been treated by that FHP bully.

Do members of the Florida Legislature get tickets? Sure. But even some of those speeding tickets can be massaged.

Matthew points to speeding citations issued by various troopers to state Sens. John Thrasher, Charlie Dean and Jeff Clemens. All of their tickets indicated they were cited for going 79 in a 70 mph zone, when they were actually clocked driving much faster. The distinction is important since going more than 20 mph over the posted limited carries a higher fine.

The vapors experienced by McBurney, R-Fredo Corleone, over his forgiving treatment by Trooper Swindle notwithstanding, it would certainly seem Matthew can make a compelling case his client was hardly alone in dispensing gentle street justice.

But even if you accept that Swindle should have taken a Joe Friday by-the-book approach to treating all traffic scofflaws the same regardless of their political clout (or their propensity to turn into crybabies), did his handling of the tattletale McBurney rise to the level of losing his job?

If there is any justice to be found in this story, the Public Employees Relations Commission will find that Swindle should get his job back after a time-served suspension.

And as for Charles McBurney, R-Mole, a court somewhere ought to order him to drive back and forth from Tallahassee to Jacksonville at 20 mph. If we've learned anything from this, it is that speed shrills.

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