'Unwritten policy' backfires


Published Jun 8, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. —

Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be too creative.

Just ask Charles Swindle, the Florida Highway Patrol trooper who lost his job over what might best be called creative generosity.

Swindle was doing I-10 speed enforcement on the November day last year when state legislators were returning to Tallahassee for an organizational session.

After Swindle pulled over a pair of cars he clocked at 87 mph — 17 mph above the speed limit — he discovered that the second car was being driven by a state legislator.

“I had it on cruise control,” state Rep. Charles McBurney, a Jacksonville lawyer, told the trooper, according to the recording of the traffic stop. “There’s no way I was going 87. I had it on 75.”

Then McBurney showed the trooper his state legislator ID card, which caused Swindle to call up his supervisor and propose a deal.

“I’m going to write (McBurney) a warning and be nice,” the trooper said, “I’m going to stroke him ’cause I didn’t see his insurance card. I’ll give him that ticket and warn him for speed.”

Swindle had asked to see McBurney’s license and registration, but not his insurance card. So the trooper reasoned that he would give a break to the state legislator by just issuing him a $10 non-moving violation for not having proof of insurance, but sparing McBurney from facing the moving violation of speeding, which could have resulted in points on his license and a $250 ticket.

Now, what to do with the driver of the other car? It was being driven by Steve Caristi, 44, of Port St. John, a traveling printer repair technician.

“Yeah, I was probably speeding,” Caristi said Wednesday, remembering that day. “I get pulled over a lot. Sometimes you get a ticket, and sometimes you just get a warning and they tell you to slow down.”

The trooper told his supervisor that it was only fair to offer Caristi the same break he had given the legislator.

“(McBurney) is no better than (Caristi), and (Caristi) is no better than (McBurney), so I’m going to do both the same,” the trooper radioed to his supervisor.

Caristi had no idea that he was being cut a break because he was lucky enough to be pulled over with a state legislator. He just thought this was one of those traffic stops when he gets a warning. He gladly paid the $10 ticket.

“I’m always happy not to get a speeding ticket,” he said.

The state legislator, though, was peeved to get the $10 ticket, telling the trooper that he had his insurance card with him, so he shouldn’t be written up for having no proof of insurance.

Swindle reminded the legislator that his choice was a $250 speeding ticket or a $10 non-moving violation.

“I’m cutting you a break on this one,” he reminded the legislator.

McBurney wasn’t the only returning state legislator that Swindle stopped for speeding that day. The trooper later stopped state Rep. Michael Clelland, a retired firefighter from Longwood, for speeding. And Clelland got the $10 deal, too.

Clelland paid it, later saying that he considered the break a matter of “professional courtesy” from the trooper.

But McBurney was far from grateful. The legislator wrote an official letter of complaint about the $10 ticket to the high command of the Florida Highway Patrol, which sparked an investigation by the Inspector General’s Office for the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Swindle was fired for writing the $10 ticket under false pretenses.

Today, he is working as an emergency medical technician in Perry and trying get his firing rescinded.

“I don’t think the punishment fits the crime,” Swindle said. “I’m just trying to clear my name.”

As for giving breaks to lawmakers stopped for violating the traffic laws?

“It was an unwritten policy,” he said. “But I’m sure it won’t be anymore.”