Detective punished for driving impaired
By CHRIS TISCH
CLEARWATER -- An undercover Pinellas sheriff's detective has been suspended for five days because she was drunk when she got into a crash with her Sheriff's Office car, sheriff's officials say.
Investigators say Detective Karin Bennett had a blood-alcohol level more than twice that at which a driver is considered impaired when she ran the silver four-door Taurus into a light pole Dec. 1.
Bennett could have been fired but received the lowest possible punishment because her record had been spotless in more than 11 years with the Sheriff's Office. Her privilege to use a take-home car was withdrawn for six months as part of her punishment.
Bennett, 35, ran her car into the light on N Fort Harrison Avenue about 12:30 a.m. Dec. 1. The impact knocked the light over and onto the street. The car was totaled.
Clearwater police responded to the crash. One of the first officers on the scene said she smelled alcohol on Bennett's breath.
Bennett twice asked a Clearwater police sergeant: "Where's my agency? Why isn't my agency here yet?"
Sheriff's deputies soon began arriving. Clearwater police were cleared from the scene and the Sheriff's Office major accidents investigation team took over, which is standard policy when a deputy is involved in a crash with injuries.
Bennett appeared to have an injury to her nose, but she declined medical treatment. She later learned she suffered a concussion, a broken nose and a deviated septum.
Though she had asked for her agency early on, sheriff's officials say, Bennett was upset when she learned that the major accidents team would be investigating.
Several deputies said they could smell alcohol on Bennett's breath. Only one thought the smell was distinct. The others thought it was faint.
Deputies watched Bennett closely at the scene. They reported seeing her walking in a way that did not appear impaired. Her eyes were watery, but deputies thought that could be from her injury.
Bennett first told deputies she had one Icehouse beer that night. Deputies later found out that she had consumed much more, according to investigators. She also told deputies she hit the pole after she was cut off by another car, but investigators could never confirm there was another vehicle.
Deputies asked Bennett to perform field sobriety tests. She had trouble keeping her balance, but deputies said they weren't sure if that was from alcohol or her injury.
Deputies decided they didn't have enough probable cause to make Bennett submit to a breath test for a criminal case. They decided to let the State Attorney's Office decide whether to file charges against Bennett. Prosecutors did not file charges.
Deputies told investigators they did not show favoritism because of Bennett's job.
Though there wasn't enough evidence to test Bennett's breath for a criminal case, deputies could test her breath for an internal affairs investigation. Under Florida law, that test cannot be used against a deputy or police officer in court.
Two tests showed her blood-alcohol count at 0.179 and 0.185. Florida law presumes a person to be impaired at 0.08.
Internal affairs investigators determined that Bennett met some co-workers, including the sergeant who supervises her, at a restaurant in Palm Harbor after work that day. She drank a beer and also had a shot of tequila. She ordered a second shot but had to leave before she could finish it.
Her supervisor, Sgt. Daniel Carron, said he believed Bennett was driving her take-home car that evening. Still, he did not question her about drinking. Carron is being investigated by his command staff because he did not stop Bennett from drinking and driving her Sheriff's Office car.
When internal affairs later interviewed Bennett, she confirmed she had the drinks at the restaurant and other drinks that night. She said she went to her brother's house in Madeira Beach and had two more shots of tequila.
She went to another restaurant and drank a Cosmopolitan. Bennett said she then drove home but didn't think she was impaired.
"I did not feel at any time that I was almost two times the legal limit," Bennett told internal affairs.
Bennett told sheriff's officials this week that she made a mistake. The administrative review board recommended the suspension, which is without pay, and Sheriff Everett Rice concurred.
"I am truly sorry if I brought any discredit to this agency," Bennett told internal affairs.
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