In a rarity among modern American jurisprudence, a state highway trooper has lost his job over a traffic ticket he didn't write — and now his fight has sparked a wider dispute over who gets preferential treatment for enforcing the law on the road. Does anyone need to guess that this happened in Florida?
The tale starts last November, when Florida Highway Patrol trooper Charles Swindle stopped state Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, for doing 87 mph in a 70 mph zone. McBurney was driving a Toyota with a license plate identifying him as a state lawmaker; after checking with his sergeant, Swindle told McBurney "I'm cutting you a break" and cited him only for lacking proof of insurance — a $10 ticket rather than a $280 one that McBurney could have faced.
According to Florida state investigators, Swindle did the same for another driver he pulled over at the same time, telling his dispatcher “I’m going to write (McBurney) a warning and be nice; I’m going to stroke him ’cause I didn’t see his insurance card."
But the episode bothered McBurney (who denied going 87 mph) so much that he wrote to Swindle's superiors on legislature letterhead, complaining that Swindle was favoring state officials. "If those who enforce our laws fail to meet the highest ethical standards, there is erosion of that confidence," McBurney wrote. "I am concerned that as Trooper Swindle acted in such fashion to me, that he would do so to any law-abiding citizen of our state."
That letter launched an internal investigation, and two weeks ago, Swindle was fired for "conduct unbecoming a public employee." And now Swindle and his attorney have appealed his dismissal, contending the Florida Highway Patrol has an unwritten policy of letting state lawmakers off easy at traffic stops to avoid trouble come budget-writing time. The FHP denies that's the case, and has speeding tickets written to several lawmakers over the past few years to show it.
All of this falls into that rubric so often heard in these situations of "just doing my job." Swindle clearly believed he was supposed to treat some drivers differently than others, a discretion granted most traffic enforcers who aren't robotic cameras. McBurney sees part of his job to fight the appearance of corruption, even if it leads to an officer's firing. And Florida officials think they have no choice but to deny the existence of a caste system on public roads that favor some drivers over others, despite providing license plates for lawmakers and others that double as donations to Police Activity League charities. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it's hard to get people to understand something when their salary depends on not understanding it.
Illustration based on Florida Highway Patrol photo via Facebook