Defense attorney calls for unrestricted review of Tampa DUI cases

If you've been following the news here in Tampa recently, you've no doubt heard about the shakeup in the Tampa Police Department's DUI unit. After the suspicious DUI arrest of a lawyer involved in the high-profile libel case between shock jocks Todd 'MJ' Schnitt and Bubba the Love Sponge Clem in the midst of trial -- and another apparently targeted at a noted Cuban trade advocate -- the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office launched an investigation.

That investigation unequivocally found that the attorney's DUI arrest was a set-up, apparently orchestrated by the opposing firm.

How did that firm set up a DUI arrest? According to the Tampa Bay Times, one of the lawyers was a long-term close friend of the sergeant in charge of Tampa's DUI unit. He denies knowing about the set-up, but a prosecutor with the state attorney's office called the degree of communication between the two "jaw-dropping," and the sergeant, for reasons unexplained, deleted some 92 text messages sent during the lead-up to the arrest the very next day.

Prosecutors dropped the DUI charges against the attorney. The Cuban trade advocate registered a blood alcohol content of 0.00.

The fallout has already been considerable. Tampa's police chief decentralized the DUI unit to allow better oversight -- and reassigned its sergeant and another officer to other duties. The FBI is investigating. A six-person panel of major players in the Florida justice system has been convened to review a large number of DUI arrest reports for any evidence of flaws, discrepancies and omissions that could indicate further illegal behavior, and to recommend policy changes to prevent innocent people from being targeted by officers for personal or professional animus.

The criminal defense attorney representing the lawyer who was illegally set up praised the establishment of the panel, but stressed that it represents a mere "baby step" toward resolving the department's DUI enforcement problems. Those issues can be addressed by this panel he called "very distinguished members of the legal community" -- but pointed out that it will only be effective if allowed to probe into any and every area they consider relevant.

Hillsborough County prosecutors have already notified criminal defense attorneys handling 24 current Tampa DUI cases that the accused officers were involved in the arrests -- and even attached copies of the scathing state attorney's report. That will allow the defendants to challenge these particular officers' credibility in court.

If the problems prove to be more systemic , however, all of Tampa's recent DUI cases could be open to challenge.

Sources:

  • Tampa Bay Times, "Tampa police chief launches investigation of DUI unit; mayor weighs in," Jessica Vander Velde and Sue Carlton, Aug. 6, 2013
  • Tampa Bay Times, "Citing setup, prosecutors drop DUI charge against Todd 'MJ' Schnitt's attorney," Sue Carlton, Jessica Vander Velde and Curtis Krueger, July 29, 2013
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