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Driver sues ‘distracted’ Tampa officer

TAMPA — A Tampa man has filed suit, saying a car rammed into him from behind because the driver was distracted by an electronic device.

The driver, the suit says, was a Tampa police officer, and he was distracted by the department-issued computer in his car.

The lawsuit by Ryan Leiker of Tampa names the city of Tampa as defendant. It says Officer Michael Charles Braband was the at-fault driver in the wreck that occurred on Cross Creek Boulevard on Aug. 8, 2012.

The suit said Leiker was westbound on Cross Creek Boulevard and had stopped in his 2005 Nissan Maxima to make a left into the Cory Lake Isles Professional Center. His turn signal was blinking, the lawsuit said, when he was rear-ended by the 2006 patrol car driven by Braband.

The crash caused an estimated $10,000 damage to the police car, according to the accident report, and $20,000 damage to the Nissan. Braband’s vehicle then went into the eastbound lane, where it struck another car, causing an estimated $10,000 damage to that vehicle, the report said.

“Officer Braband was typing on his computer and not paying attention to the road and caused his police cruiser to strike (Leiker’s) car,” the lawsuit said.

No citations were issued, according to the online citation database of the Hillsborough County Clerk’s Office. The accident report said Braband was inattentive at the time of the accident, but there was no mention of the computer in the narrative of the report.

Braband was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he was treated and released. The report did not indicate if Leiker went to the hospital, though according to a reprimand letter in Braband’s file, Leiker “had no complaint of injury.”

Leiker, who said in the suit he suffered back and neck pain, is seeking in excess of $15,000, the threshold for a circuit court complaint.

The reprimand said Braband was going about 40 mph in a 45 mph zone when he got a message on his computer. He looked at the message and when he looked up, he saw the Nissan stopped and could not avoid the crash, the reprimand letter said.

“Officer Braband was not operating his vehicle within departmental guidelines,” the reprimand said. “The crash could have been prevented and officer Braband was at fault.”

Highway safety and law enforcement officers say distracted driving is a major cause of accidents across the nation. Last year, Florida became the 41st state to make texting while driving a civil offense; violators face a penalty of more than $100.

Police spokeswoman Andrea Davis declined to comment on the accident because the matter is in litigation.

She said that police officers who are at fault in a wreck are taken to task within the department, and seldom, if ever, are traffic citations issued to officers on the street.

The first crash for an at-fault officer results in a letter of counseling placed in the personnel file, she said. If an officer gets into a second wreck in which he or she is at fault within two years, there is a $250 fine paid to the department. As letters of counseling accumulate, other sanctions occur, she said, and could result in the removal from patrol duty.

“It’s a progressive discipline process,” she said. “People say, ‘Oh, they just got a letter, and not a citation,’ but getting a letter of counseling is a big deal in the police world. The next step would bring bigger issues.

“You look at the miles they are driving and the conditions they drive in,” she said, “there are going to be accidents.”

The departmental policy urges officers to pull over to get messages, texts or to read the computer screen, but they are “allowed discretion under certain circumstances.”

A similar issue arose last year when then Lt. Steve Hartnett, who was involved in a massive manhunt for a man who raped several women and terrorized groups of partygoers near the University of South Florida, was responding to a call when he bumped into a parked car on Central Avenue as he was reading a message on his computer screen.

Hartnett, now a captain, received a letter of counseling in his file, which held him at fault in the accident.

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