A state hearing officer on Monday ruled that the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles should not have fired Trooper Charles Swindle for his actions in citing two state legislators for non-existing violations. Hearing officer Gregg Morton said that by pulling over two lawmakers, Swindle "was in a no-win situation," and concluded that the patrolman should serve a three-week unpaid suspension and be reinstated to his full-time position with back pay as a member of the Florida Highway Patrol.
In his 22-page decision, Morton agreed with the state that Swindle violated two agency rules in the stops involving state Reps. Charles McBurney and Mike Clelland on Interstate 10 in Madison last November. But the officer concluded that Swindle made snap decisions and that he was guided by a long-standing unofficial policy of leniency toward legislators at the FHP.
"Swindle's particular actions in this case were heavily influenced by the Agency's unwritten policy toward traffic stops involving legislators," Morton wrote. "Under these circumstances, the Agency bears some responsibility for Swindle's actions and, thereore, I regard his violations as less severe than they might otherwise be viewed."
Morton wrote: "I believe Trooper Swindle was in a no-win situation having pulled over two legislators for speeding. In attempting to make a quick decision to resolve the situation, he made a mistake in his method of showing leniency in accordance with the Agency's unwritten policy." The hearing officer also noted that Swindle's personnel file is mostly glowing, and called him "an accomplished and otherwise admiral employee."
The decision is a significant defeat for the highway safety agency, which is under the direction of Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet. Last week, highway safety agency director Julie Jones denied knowledge of any such unwritten policy at the patrol.
Swindle was fired March 15 after six-and-a-half years as a trooper after an internal investigation concluded that he had opted not to cite McBurney or Clelland for speeding, but instead gave both lawmakers less expensive citations. McBurney was cited for no proof of insurance and Clelland for no proof of insurance and no registration.
Technically, the hearing officer's recommendation must still be approved by the three members of the Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC), but in most cases commissioners ratify the findings of the officer who actually heard the testimony. Coicidentally, one of the three PERC commissioners, Mike Hogan, is a former Republican legislator from Jacksonville.
-- Steve Bousquet