LEE COUNTY, Fla.- A WINK News investigation into speeding tickets may unhinge the court system.
“You know, these have been out there for years and so they just didn’t dip into it deeply enough,” observed Mark Bonner, a professor at Ave Maria School of Law. “It looks like WINK has dug into this.”
Up to 52,000 speeding tickets written in Lee County since 2004 may have been issued improperly. Why?
WINK News Investigative Reporter Dave Culbreth found out it all has to do with a certain type of radar gun the Lee County Sheriff’s Office should not have been using.
“How does this happen?” asked Fort Myers attorney Sawyer Smith. “How does the sheriff spend taxpayer dollars on something he’s not allowed to use?”
While you may expect a defense attorney to say something like that about thousands of questionable speeding tickets, others are saying it as well including Bonner, who is a former federal prosecutor.
“This is, this is a real screw up, okay?” exclaimed Bonner. “There’s no two ways about it.”
For three decades, Bonner was an attorney for the United States Department of Justice in Los Angeles, Moscow, and Washington, D.C. He now teaches law at Ave Maria.
“There must be thousands and thousands of cases.”
Our investigation discovered for at least the last 10 years, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office has issued an average of 100 speeding tickets a week, adding up to a total of 51,897.
Sources with direct knowledge of the situation say most of those are based on a radar device called the Python II.
“Florida is one of the better states on specifying what they want in their radars,” said radar expert and electrical engineer, Don Sawicki.
You could say he wrote the book, actually several books, and has a website about radar devices.
He says the problem with the Python III likes in what’s known as “beam width” and that it does not meet Florida’s minimum design specifications.
“It specifically says that the beam width shall not exceed 12 degrees,” Sawicki explained.
In a graphic displayed by WINK News there are three vehicles. In the first example, cops are trying to clock the speed of the front car and with a device with a 12 degree beam width, it’s no problem. But, with a 15 degree beam width Sawicki says, “he could be picking up traffic that he is not expecting to pick up, so he may mistake somebody for speeding that isn’t speeding.”
Bonner says that’s a problem because the Python II has a 15 degree beam width, “therefore, any speed measurement from the Python II is inadmissible in any court in Florida concerning speed of a motor vehicle.”
Yes, you heard right, not admissible in court. Since it doesn’t meet specifications, it’s not on the State of Florida’s list of approved devices.
“The procurement officer who is buying these radar guns probably looked at the list, I would hope, of approved radar measuring guns and found that well, there is a model Python that’s approved and a model Python III approved,” said Bonner. “And he probably missed the fact that the Python II is not on there.”
When asked about the assumption of them looking at it, Bonner replied, “that’s assuming they looked at it. If they didn’t look at it, shame on them. That’s even worse.”
So, did they look at the list? WINK News submitted a public records requests to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and found this email chain from the commander of the Lee County Sheriff’s Traffic Division in January who, after talking with administrators, wrote that they were not even aware that there even was a list.
“‘We goofed up’ is probably going to be the answer,” said Bonner.
When asked if he saw any other answer, he said, “I don’t. No, I don’t.”
The email specifically reads, “All of the information I provided my administrative personnel did not seem to be enough and they requested a confirmation… as they were not aware of a list of approved devices.”
The Python II was never even submitted for approval, saying specifically “I do not have the unit that you mentioned submitted for approval for use in the State of Florida.”
To which Bonner responded, “It’s obviously a mistake, but a mistake that managed to survive for years and years and years.”
But, how many years have they used the Pyton II? The sheriff’s office wouldn’t give WINK News a straight answer but in that same email chain, the commander wrote “our agency purchased the last batch in 2004.”
I asked for the purchase orders and was told in an email “we only retain those records for five years.”
That’d be 2009. So, I asked when they were destroyed. Answer: March 25 of this year. That’s two months after they realized they had a problem.
Fort Myers attorney Sawyer Smith represents criminal defendants.
“Anybody who was a part of that needs to be immediately investigated and suspended from duty. Once they figured out they have a problem, they are on notice that something is coming. It is their duty to preserve evidence.”
So, we asked our legal experts what about people who got pulled over because of the Python II and wound up getting other charges?
“Let’s say he pulls you over, and you roll down the window, and you smell like a brewery, or he looks inside and there’s drugs all over the inside of the car, if he didn’t have that reasonable suspicion or probable cause to pull you over, then everything that flows from that, it’s an illegal stop basically,” said Bonner.
Smith added, “we’re going to be filing Motions to Suppress all evidence after the initial stop because the stop is no longer valid. It’s the fruit of the poisonous tree. Now we’re going to have to look backwards.”
What about no one in the sheriff’s office apparently knowing that there even was a list of approved radar devices?
“They’re in law enforcement,” Smith said, “they’re charged with the task of knowing the law.”
What about those of you who got speeding tickets?
“There’s a provision like this in Florida law where it’s too late to bring it back to the trial, so you reopen the whole thing, and the court sends it back down for new trial, and then they dismiss the case and clear your record off.”
When asked if people could actually get some of these thrown out, Bonner answered, “yes, I think so. The answer is yes.”
Smith added, “It’s gonna cause a tremendous uproar in the community.”
“If you’re in prison right now because of the radar gun, Python II, you need to call your lawyer immediately!” added Bonner.
That uproar again is the portion of those 51,897 tickets that were written based on the Python II radar guns. We did get copies of some purchase orders from January of this year where the sheriff’s office traded in 85 Python II’s for new devices.
It’s important to note that the sheriff’s office says the last batch was purchased in 2004 and Sheriff Mike Scott was first elected at the end of that year. We’ve been asking the sheriff’s office for comments on all of this. So far, nothing.
WINK News checked all around the state to see if other places are using the Python II’s and found that the Orlando Police Department has three dozen that it said in an email it uses constantly. But other than that, there are very few and only one here in Southwest Florida.
The DeSoto County Sheriff’s Office was using three of them and when I told officials there what the problem was, they immediately took them off the streets.
Tuesday night, WINK News will reveal details about a class action suit that will be filed soon.