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Father seeks answers after teen's fatal crash

A sheriff's deputy who stops the 18-year-old decides he is not impaired. A short time later, the teen hits a pole.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000


OLDSMAR -- A Pinellas sheriff's deputy saw 18-year-old Daniel Scott Fletcher Jr. drive erratically and immediately suspected he might have been drinking.

Yet, during a traffic stop April 21, deputies decided he wasn't impaired after all. They gave him the last ticket of his short life: an $80 citation for weaving. He drove off.

Fletcher, already awaiting trial on a DUI charge, had been drinking that night.

Not long after deputies let him go, Fletcher weaved off the side of the same road. This time, he crashed and later died.

Now Fletcher's family wonders whether deputies acted appropriately that night. Should Fletcher have been arrested on a DUI charge? Should one of his parents have been called to let them know their son was driving erratically?

His family didn't immediately ask those questions.

Not until after they discovered that the Pinellas Sheriff's Office took the rare step of asking a judge to void the $80 ticket.

"They were trying to hide that they had stopped him," said Fletcher's father, Daniel Scott Fletcher Sr. "They didn't want us to know. They nonchalantly let my son go on his way. Things shouldn't have happened the way they did. My son should be alive."

After the crash, a hospital blood test showed the younger Fletcher's blood-alcohol level was 0.04 percent, an illegal level for someone under the legal drinking age of 21.

"I would have liked to have gotten a call saying, "Come get your son, he may have been drinking,' " said Fletcher.

Sheriff Everett Rice said his deputies did not have reasonable grounds to arrest Fletcher for DUI, much less take his keys away.

"If there had been any basis to arrest him for DUI, believe me, they would have done it," Rice said in an interview Friday. "Even if they had known his blood-alcohol level, and they didn't, they couldn't have arrested him."

Sheriff Rice appears to be wrong.

While a driver is presumed impaired with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or above, the same isn't true for drivers younger than the legal drinking age.

Those not legally old enough to drink face the state's Zero Tolerance law. Any police officer who suspects a driver younger than 21 may have been drinking any amount of alcohol at all can arrest the driver and request a blood-alcohol test.

Anyone younger than 21 faces a license suspension with a blood-alcohol level of 0.02 or above. Refusing a test also leads to a suspension.

"The sheriff should read the statute," said attorney John Trevena, who represents Fletcher's father. "It's pretty clear."

Not long after his death, Fletcher's family hired a private investigator to trace his steps during the last hours of his life.

Fletcher, a senior at Boca Ciega High School in St. Petersburg, was thinking about entering the Marine Corps after graduation.

One friend told a private investigator that Fletcher was depressed by his parents' recent divorce. Fletcher lived with his mother, Barbara Fletcher, in St. Petersburg, but often saw his father at his Oldsmar home.

Mrs. Fletcher did not return calls for comment.

In recent months, he had been drinking heavily, friends said.

Shortly before his death, Fletcher went to a party at a friend's house in Palm Harbor, friends later told an investigator.

A girlfriend said she saw him drinking a beer. How much he drank remains unclear.

Less than an hour before he died, Fletcher called a former girlfriend and asked if she wanted to hang out with him.

The teen "told Scott "no' because he was too messed up," said a report by private investigator Susan Cieszlak.

Fletcher left the party, perhaps headed back to his mother's home in St. Petersburg.

About 1 a.m., sheriff's Deputy Robert Barry was driving his cruiser home south along East Lake Road after having just finished working an off-duty shift as a guard at a local subdivision.

Near East Lake Woodlands, he saw Fletcher's 1997 Ford Ranger pickup stopped at a green traffic light for no apparent reason.

The deputy called dispatch, put his emergency lights on and walked toward the Ford pickup.

But Fletcher took off.

Barry followed along East Lake Road in the Oldsmar area. He noticed Fletcher weave up to 2 feet over the dividing line on the side of the road. But Fletcher didn't speed as if to elude the deputy, Barry later reported.

Eventually, Fletcher stopped.

"As I walked up to the . . . truck, I was under the impression the driver may have been driving under the influence," Barry later reported.

The deputy called for a specially trained DUI officer to help him assess whether Fletcher was impaired. Two other deputies also responded.

Barry asked Fletcher why he had stopped at the green light. Barry said Fletcher replied, "I'm tired and I haven't slept for a couple of days. I just left a friend's house. I'm on my way home."

Fletcher didn't have his driver's license with him. He stepped out of the car and walked around. The deputies watched and said he did not walk unsteadily, indicating he was sober.

The deputy in the DUI unit gave him a field sobriety test to see how his eyes followed a hand-held object.

The deputy said Fletcher passed. He decided to give him no further sobriety tests.

The four deputies decided he wasn't impaired. None of the deputies could be reached for comment.

But Fletcher wasn't free yet. The deputies were unable to confirm that he had a valid license.

"I explained since he did not have a license, he would not be allowed to drive away and asked who he would like to come and pick him up," Barry reported.

Fletcher was angry, telling the deputies he was being harassed. But soon, deputies confirmed the license and let Fletcher go.

His life was nearly over.

He made a U-turn and drove north up East Lake, away from St. Petersburg. As he neared Lake Fern Road in the Tarpon Springs area at 1:50 a.m., his truck weaved off the right side of the road for no apparent reason.

Fletcher then veered sharply to the left, across two lanes of traffic into the median, where he struck a pole and was thrown from his truck.

A witness who stopped to help Fletcher later told the private investigator he smelled alcohol on him.

"I think he drove straight from the traffic stop to the crash site without stopping anywhere else," Fletcher's father said.

Fletcher died at 5 p.m. that day from massive head and internal injuries.

A blood test later proved Fletcher had been drinking.

"Our deputies only did their job," said Sheriff Rice. "Maybe there were some other contributing factors to the accident, speed or reckless driving. Maybe he had something else on his mind other than alcohol. Why he drove that way we don't know."

Four days after the crash, the Sheriff's Office asked a Pinellas County judge to void the ticket.

Rice said his office was being compassionate and practical.

"There was no sense wasting judicial time or burdening the family about a ticket when he had already died," he said.

Judge Michael Andrews, who signed the order voiding the ticket, said he saw nothing unusual about the request.

Other police agencies say they don't bother making such requests in the rare circumstances when someone who has received a ticket dies.

That is left to state license officials and the courts, say other agencies, including the Florida Highway Patrol, St. Petersburg and Clearwater police.

"I'd be really surprised if you found an agency with that in their standard operating procedure," said Jon Powers, a spokesman for Pasco Sheriff Lee Cannon.

But he added, "My first impression is how nice of them to take the time to notify the court. This sounds like lawsuit city to me."

Indeed, Fletcher's father is considering a lawsuit against the sheriff.

Attorney Trevena thinks that Deputy Barry, just finishing an off-duty shift, did not make a DUI arrest because of the time it would have taken.

"He didn't want to be bothered with an arrest after putting in a long day's work," Trevena said.

Rice's spokesman, Sgt. Greg Tita, vehemently denied the accusation, saying, "If he was in such a hurry to get home, then why did he stop (Fletcher) to begin with?"

Fletcher's father found the ticket his son had received among the personal items returned to the family by the FHP, which investigated the crash.

Later, the private investigator discovered the court document showing the Sheriff's Office asked the ticket to be voided.

"It took us a while to piece it together," Fletcher said. "I have a suspicion they knew he was drinking."

Rice said his office is in a no-win situation. "If we would have arrested him," the sheriff said, "we would have been sued for arresting him without probable cause."

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