Deputies' actions feed cynical views of law

A Times Editorial
Published February 1, 2007

James Martone is making it look easy.

It is easy to look at the circumstances surrounding Martone's latest brush with the law and conclude that the longtime officer and personal friend of Sheriff Jeff Dawsy received a tremendous break from his colleagues after a recent traffic stop.

It is easy because that is exactly what happened.

It is also easy for the public to grumble that they never would have, nor should have, received a pass had they committed the same reckless and dangerous act. Especially considering that this is not the first time this has happened to Martone.

This incident will also be used as evidence in the minds of many that there are two tiers of justice: One for those somehow connected to higher political powers, another for everyone else.

Martone made all of this easy because he never did learn the lesson from the first time he was pulled over by a fellow officer for suspicion of drunken driving. That episode 10 years ago ended much the same way as his latest escapade, when he was stopped on Jan. 13 by a deputy he had forced off the road.

In both instances, Martone exhibited the classic signs of impairment: slurred speech, glassy eyes, unsteady on his feet, the odor of booze wafting from him. The sort of clues that law enforcement officers are trained to detect and act upon for the public's good.

But in neither instance did deputies administer the standard field sobriety tests. Therefore, in the eyes of the law, Martone has never driven while intoxicated.

Both times, fellow police officers arrived at the scene, contacted higher-ups, and arranged to have Martone transported home. How very accommodating.

Interestingly, in the most recent incident, Martone's chauffeur was his 15-year-old son. Drivers at that age are required to be accompanied by an adult, presumably a sober one, when they take the wheel. But a supervisor allowed the teen to drive off with a clearly intoxicated passenger as the responsible adult in the vehicle.

For those questioning why Martone was not arrested, or at least tested, the agency has issued the response that is typically trotted out for these occasions: Officers have broad discretion in how to handle such situations.

This certainly is true, and many members of the public have received warnings or similar treatment for minor traffic offenses. But this is not about someone not stopping for a full three seconds at a stop sign; Martone could have killed someone.

The Sheriff's Office investigative report makes it clear what happened that night. Martone had been drinking beer for six hours at a friend's house, then decided to head home. That this friend is a fellow police officer who should have known better than to let Martone drive is a point that has been lost in the focus on Martone's actions.

While navigating a curve along Old Floral City Road, and while he said he was trying to unwrap a fast-food sandwich, he crossed into oncoming traffic. Fortunately, the vehicle that he forced off the road was a patrol car, operated by someone with the power to stop Martone from endangering anyone else.

When he was stopped, Martone handed the deputy his lieutenant's shield and agency ID before giving him his driver's license. The deputy said he didn't think Martone was currying favor, but that "he was intoxicated and provided me with the wrong stuff." He also said he saw no food or wrappers inside Martone's truck.

Realizing that the person with the slurred speech, glassy eyes and reeking of alcohol who was swaying before him was a high-ranking officer, the deputy called his supervisor, who went to the scene and arranged for Martone to be taken home.

Very telling is that the deputy who stopped Martone told investigators that had this been a regular traffic stop, involving someone the deputy did not know, he would have taken Martone to jail for DUI. Martone, he said, was "very unsafe" on the road.

The officers on the scene acknowledged that Martone appeared to be intoxicated, but neither could say if he was legally impaired because they chose not to perform any of the routine tests. The inescapable conclusion is that they did not want to know just how drunk their colleague was.

Martone, for his part, insists that he was not impaired at all. As for any special treatment he may have received, Martone told investigators that he was not expecting any "courtesy" from his coworkers when he was stopped, and that the only break that he may have received was in not getting a ticket for crossing a double yellow line. There was no reason, he said, for deputies to have given him a sobriety test.

So, is the public to assume that drivers exhibiting the same behavior as Martone will not be given sobriety tests? One hopes that law enforcement in this county is more diligent than that.

Any driver who refuses to take breath tests loses his driving privileges automatically. There are many people who have been stopped for suspicion of drunken driving, refused to take the tests, prevailed in court on DUI charges, and still have lost their licenses.

While Martone has been demoted, suspended without pay and subjected to a heavy dose of public humiliation, for the second time he has been spared any legal consequences for his actions.

Martone's supporters in the community, and there are many, praise his years of law enforcement service, particularly his work with children in the School Resource Officer program. And Martone does have a solid career of which he can be proud.

His supporters note that, because he was not arrested, Martone has broken no laws. They are doing him, and the community, a gross disservice.

By looking the other way over the years at a pattern of troubling behavior, they have helped Martone avoid dealing with what even he, if belatedly, has now acknowledged as "a problem with my off-duty alcohol use."

As leader of the School Resource Officer program, Martone has been in a unique position in the agency, the point man in an effort to keep kids from using alcohol, from engaging in risky behavior, from driving while drunk.

What a far-better role model Martone would have been had he been honest with the students he has counseled over the years and shown that he could gain control over his personal demons.

Instead, those students and the rest of the public can cynically view this as an example of law enforcement favoritism and unequal justice.

And why not? Martone has made those assumptions easy.