TAMPA — The Tampa police department is changing the way drunk driving cases are handled after a review sparked by the arrest laast year of a prominent attorney who prosecutors said was “set up” by a DUI squad sergeant.
The review began after the firing of Sgt. Ray Fernandez, a DUI squad supervisor, in September.
“We have rebooted our DUI unit,” Chief Jane Castor said. “We have started over, from the ground up. It’s a new day for the DUI unit and they are excited about it. They were demoralized by the embarrassing incident last year.”
The six-member team, made up of a judge, a prosecutor, a state law enforcement official and three Tampa police officers, recommended nine changes to the existing policy, including more thorough reports, expansion of field sobriety tests and video cameras in patrol cars of DUI squad supervisors.
Castor said a review of DUI squad polices had been underway before the report was issued and that the unit had been broken apart from one centralized squad to four squads operating in each of the four districts. She said the recommendations of the team, which included Circuit Judge Barbara Fleischer, statewide prosecutor Nick Cox and Dean Register, assistant inspector general for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, will be incorporated into new policy.
Fleischere said each team member examined all aspects of each case, including why each suspect was pulled over. “We did not find one shred of evidence that anyone had been targeted.”
The summary of the report makes no mention of cases specifically worked by Fernandez, and there were no “red flags” that arose in the examination of those cases or any of the other cases examined, Castor and members of the team said.
The team conducted a “large, systematic review” of 70 cases generated by the DUI unit over about a year’s time, the chief said, including four open cases made by Fernandez. His closed cases were not reviewed. The bulk of the cases were randomly selected.
While the review team looked for evidence of targeting individuals or making improper arrests, and came up with ways to improve the process, some critics said the review didn’t go far enough.
John Fitzgibbons, who represented attorney Philip Campbell in the DUI case that sparked the firing of Fernandez, last year had called for sweeping changes in the DUI unit. He said the review team should have looked at closed cases, not at the cases made after the arrest of Campbell.
“A microscope has been on the DUI unit since Jan. 23, (2013),” when Campbell was arrested, Fitzgibbons said, “and when the microscope is on you, it would be pretty senseless to do something improper in a case. Everything over the last year was pretty much, I think, by the book. Some of the pre-Phil Campbell cases should have been scrutinized, probably a great deal of them.”
The attorney said he was “disappointed that they only looked at the open cases of Fernandez and did not go back several years, but I can understand it would be pretty big job.
“It’s quite clear now that at the time Mr. Campbell was arrested, the DUI unit’s practices and procedures were broken to the degree that they allowed the set-up arrest of Mr. Campbell to occur,” Fitzgibbons said. “It’s now clear that Mr. Campbell’s arrest was a game changer in the sense that the police department is now revising significantly its DUI investigative guide. We hope that this will make the system better for the citizens and for the police in DUI matters in the city.”
The review team individually examined each of the 70 cases and didn’t meet until their own opinions were formulated, Cox said.
“We found no red flags or illegal practices going on,” he said. Officers should make reports more complete and work closer with prosecutors who take their cases to court, he said, a change that was already in the works. Regular meetings between the DUI squads and prosecutors will begin next month.
Castor fired Fernandez on Sept. 27, citing five grounds for dismissal: lack of truthfulness, misuse of authority and failure to meet the department’s standards of conduct, professional responsibility and philosophy of enforcement.
In his appeal of the termination, Fernandez said the firing was “arbitrary, capricious, excessive and not progressive in nature.” His request to be reinstated to his $92,000-a-year job and get back pay was denied.
Fernandez’s attorney said the case would be taken to arbitration, the final step in the appeals process.
The sergeant was fired after he became involved in the DUI arrest of Campbell, who was in the middle of a high-profile defamation trial between dueling radio disc jockeys “MJ” Todd Schnitt and Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.
The case against Campbell was later dropped when it was revealed the arrest happened after Fernandez received a tip from attorney Adam Filthaut, a close friend of his who worked for the law firm on the other side of the defamation case.
Campbell was arrested after drinking at Malio’s steak house in downtown Tampa with a paralegal working for the Adams and Diaco law firm, where Filthaut worked. Campbell was pulled over while driving the paralegal’s car, which she had asked him to move for her.
In October, the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office dismissed charges in about a dozen active DUI cases that involved testimony from Fernandez, a 19-year veteran of the department, and were looking at dozens more in which Fernandez played some part. Some of those were dropped and others reduced, prosecutors said, and some were brought to court under the original charge.
Castor said she will implement the recommendations of the review team immediately.
“This was a very intense review,” she said. “Very intense. We want the public to know that the Tampa Police Department has a top notch DUI unit doing everything it can to make the streets safe.”