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Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Doubts about Tampa’s DUI unit a problem for chief

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Published:   |   Updated: August 13, 2013 at 10:08 AM

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Jane Castor has shown a knack for getting out front of important issues during her four years as Tampa’s police chief. She has kept controversy to a minimum while earning respect and confidence from the community.

But with her department under a microscope like never before, she is facing questions she has never faced.

No one is in favor of lax enforcement of laws against driving under the influence. When that happens, people die.

But have some cops crossed the line between enforcement and harassment? I guess we’ll find out soon enough when the team Castor assembled to review dozens of now-suspect Tampa DUI cases makes its report.

The quality of that group speaks to the seriousness of the problem facing the department.

It includes a retired Circuit Court judge, a statewide prosecutor from the Attorney General’s Office, a representative from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and a pair of former Tampa police DUI supervisors.

It’s a good and necessary reaction to the backlash following the arrest of Tampa attorney Philip Campbell outside the downtown eatery Malios in January.

Campbell was in the middle of the high-profile “shock jock” case when he was arrested (the charge was later dropped). He claimed he was set up by rival attorneys, who kept Sgt. Ray Fernandez in the loop as the night wore on.

A brutal report from the Pinellas State Attorney’s Office said Fernandez had traded 92 text messages with one of the attorneys involved in the alleged scheme – messages Fernandez later said he accidentally erased from his cell phone.

The FBI is now investigating.

There is also the case of Cuban activist Al Fox, who was stopped by Fernandez in February. During a field sobriety test, Fox wobbled when asked to stand on one foot. Fox said that’s because he was 69 years old.

He was subsequently arrested and charged with DUI. The arrest report noted a strong odor of alcohol on his breath.

At the station, though, Fox twice registered 0.00 on the breathalyzer. The charge was later dropped.

“I spent 12 hours in jail,” Fox said. “I was shackled and strip-searched. I’m out $250 to have my car towed and $45 for processing. My mug shot is all over the Internet. I’m in a DNA bank now. I had to give my attorney a $5,000 retainer.”

His attorney, Joe Lopez, has notified the city of his intent to sue for false arrest, malicious prosecution and a civil rights violation.

And as Mayor Bob Buckhorn said last week, “The actions of any one individual should not reflect on the entire department.”

That’s a fair point.

But so is this:

“Let me make it clear: I am very much in favor of aggressive DUI enforcement,” Lopez said. “But we are also going to examine with a very critical eye those cases where people were arrested with (blood-alcohol content) .01, .02 and .03. How many people were arrested who shouldn’t have been?”

As Jane Castor knows better than anyone, it’s the only question that matters.

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