Deputy suspended in traffic stop

Published May 3, 2007

TAMPA - Late on the night of Nov. 1, William Johnston called and told his daughter he thought he was having a heart attack.

He set out for the hospital, driving himself.

Frantic, Melissa Langston, 37, jumped in her Thunderbird convertible and raced along Fletcher Avenue toward University Community Hospital.

The route took her past Hillsborough Sheriff's Deputy Kevin Stabins, who clocked her going almost 30 miles an hour over the speed limit and pulled her over.

Panicked and anxious, she begged him to let her go on to the hospital.

Unmoved, he launched into a by-the-book traffic stop routine, preparing to write her a speeding ticket.

Thus began a rapidly escalating confrontation between the street-hardened deputy and the weeping, desperate daughter.

Finally, she just drove off toward the hospital emergency room, leaving the fuming officer and his ticket book behind.

He gave chase, stopped her again, yanked her out of the car and took her to jail.

Now, though, he's the one being punished.

After a five-month investigation, authorities suspended Stabins for five days without pay for what his deputy district commander, Capt. Robert E. Spooner, called a lack of compassion in a letter to Sheriff David Gee.

"But, " Spooner continued, the Sheriff's Office has "no policy or rule and regulation to exercise compassion."

The video

The dashboard camera in Stabins' cruiser shows what happened: He pulls her over in the hospital's parking lot after she zooms past him at 63 mph in a 35-mph zone on E Fletcher.

As he walks up to the car, Langston frantically asks him where the emergency room is.

"I'm in a big hurry, my father's having a heart attack. I need to get there, " she says.

Stabins coolly asks for her license and registration.

Langston tells him her father was driving himself to the hospital, and she doesn't know if he made it. Stabins refuses her plea to write the ticket inside. He strolls back to his car.

Three minutes later, Langston apparently loses patience and drives off to look for her father's car. Stabins chases after her.

"That was not smart, " he shouts, yanking her door open.

He pulls her out, gets her in an arm lock that left bruises, spins her around, slams her against her car's hood hard enough her feet leave the ground.

"Please let me see my dad, " she sobs as he handcuffs her. "If it was your dad ..." Stabins cuts her off. "Now you're not going to see him, 'cause you're going to jail."

The family

William Johnston stayed in the hospital six days, said Mary Johnston, his wife and Langston's mother. He went home with two stents in his arteries.

The night of Langston's arrest, Mary Johnston spent five hours away from her husband's bedside as she waited at the jail for her daughter to be released.

Mary Johnston wasn't prepared for the video. She said her daughter had down played the deputy's forcefulness.

"I didn't expect to see what I saw last night, " Johnston said Thursday.

Langston told sheriff's investigators Stabins seemed "very, very mad" after he put her in the cruiser. "Like to the point where he was shaking."

Investigators found that he violated the Sheriff's Office policy when he impounded her car, instead of turning it over to her sister, who came to the scene and asked if she could take it away.

And it took him more than a month to return her driver's license.

The deputy

Stabins, 29, told investigators he didn't believe Langston because she drove past the emergency room entrance before pulling over.

"I'm lied to constantly to get out of citations, " said Stabins, a full-time deputy for four years who has earned commendations as a member of the sheriff's driving under the influence enforcement team.

Still, he said, he tried to write the ticket as quickly as he could. When Langston drove off he was seconds away from finishing.

Her departure was "nerve wracking, " Stabins said. "I didn't know what was going on."

He impounded her car because that is his normal routine as a DUI officer, he said, even though she was not intoxicated.

Stabins' report of the arrest says he "assisted Ms. Langston out of the vehicle" and defended his use of the arm lock. "I could have taken her down at gunpoint, " he said.

The Sheriff's Office has dropped all charges against Langston.

Stabins' disciplinary investigation found him guilty of using excessive force and of wrongly impounding Langston's car when he should have released it.

At the end of his interview with investigators, Stabins summed up his view of the incident: "I feel my actions were fine that night. I did what needed to get done."

Michael A. Mohammed can be reached at mmohammed@sptimes.com or 813 226-3404.