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Jones defends firing of trooper who tried to give legislators a break

Florida highway safety chief Julie Jones says state troopers are encouraged to use "discretion" when they make traffic stops, but they are not allowed to issue tickets for non-existent violations.

Jones, who reports to Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, spoke for the first time Tuesday in the case of Charles Swindle, a six-year Florida Highway Patrol veteran who was fired after he stopped two state legislators for speeding on I-10 in Madison last fall. In both cases, FHP superiors said Swindle violated agency rules by issuing citations to the lawmakers for violations that didn't exist: Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, was cited for having no proof of insurance, and Rep. Mike Clelland, D-Lake Mary, was cited for no proof of insurance and not having his registration.

Swindle said he was "cutting a break" to both politicians. McBurney complained to FHP Col. David Brierton, who ordered an investigation and fired Swindle, who appealed the dismissal to the Public Employees Relations Commission. Swindle's lawyer, Sidney Matthew, claims there is a "long-standing unwritten policy" at the FHP for troopers to go easy on speeding politicians.

Jones' agency, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, oversees the Florida Highway Patrol. Several troopers testified at Swindle's hearing last week that such a policy did exist at FHP.

"I don't know anything about that unwritten policy," Jones told reporters. "We give officers discretion to write a ticket or not write a ticket. We do not allow officers to write tickets for things that did not happen."

She emphasized that a trooper's discretion doesn't apply only to legislators: "It could be a woman with a baby in the back who's distracted," she said. "If you're a defense attorney and you have an officer that writes tickets randomly for events that did not occur, I would want to ask that officer, 'Did this really happen, or is this one of those fake tickets you wrote?"

Swindle is seeking reinstatement and back pay. If he wins his case, it would be a major embarrassment to the highway safety agency.

-- Steve Bousquet