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FHP revises rules on how to handle officers' wrecks

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 17, 2000


Last fall, the Florida Highway Patrol botched its investigation of a deadly car wreck involving an FBI agent.

Now the FHP is changing the way it investigates crashes involving law enforcement officers.

In the past, troopers haven't issued traffic tickets to officers who caused crashes while on the job.

The idea was that law officers would face internal punishment from their own agencies, and writing them tickets would amount to penalizing officers twice.

Not anymore.

"It has been accepted practice for state troopers not to file charges against on-duty police officers," Col. Charles C. Hall, the FHP's director, wrote in a new internal memorandum. "The reality is that this practice creates a double standard that the Patrol cannot defend."

In the memo sent to all troopers, Hall announced that the following changes will take effect by July 1:

Troopers will no longer be allowed to consider a traffic violator's occupation when deciding whether to issue a ticket.

Only FHP supervisors will investigate crashes involving on-duty police officers. FHP troopers and corporals, who hold lower ranks than supervisors, will no longer be assigned to such accidents.

The FHP often steps in to investigate crashes involving police officers. That way, the department that employs the officer and owns the patrol car won't have a conflict of interest.

Hall said he recognized that police officers' jobs sometimes force them to do distracting tasks while driving. So he created two exceptions to the rule:

Crashes that occur while an officer is chasing a suspect or responding to an emergency call or a fire.

Minor fender-benders that cause no injuries and damage only government property.

"I realize that this is a substantial change from past practices," Hall wrote. "I have labored over this issue for some time and have ordered this change solely because I feel that it is in the best interest of the Patrol."

The FHP is announcing these changes in the wake of a widely publicized blunder.

Last November, after drinking in a bar, an off-duty FBI agent drove the wrong way on Interstate 95 without headlights for 3 miles and hit a car head-on, killing two brothers, the FHP now says.

At the time, the brothers -- a married youth minister and a college scholarship student, both of them young and black -- were blamed for the crash. State troopers did not realize their error for a month.

The FHP admitted that troopers misinterpreted physical evidence, ignored conflicting witnesses and asked leading questions of Miami-based FBI Agent David Farrall after the crash.

The case led FHP Lt. Col. Billy Dickson to recommend changing several of the agency's procedures for investigating traffic crashes.

The FBI agent was fired and is charged with DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide. He has pleaded not guilty. Gov. Jeb Bush has appointed a special prosecutor to review the investigation of the crash.

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