Dismissed: State trooper beats citations in fatal crash
One FHP commander fired, a supervisor faces demotion
A Florida Highway Patrol trooper gets his three traffic tickets dismissed during hearing
By Sally Kestin, Sun Sentinel
10:28 p.m. EST, February 16, 2013
The car barreled down a county road at more than 100 mph before it slammed into a Mitsubishi Galant, killing one woman, seriously injuring another and hurtling a child through the windshield.
At the wheel of the speeding vehicle: an on-duty Florida Highway Patrol trooper.
FHP found the trooper, Detrick McClellan, at fault in the horrific crash, fired him, and cited him with three traffic violations.
•Video: Watch the court hearing
Photos: Florida Highway Patrol crash scene
FHP disciplines 31 troopers for speeding
But when his case came up in court, the trooper who issued the citations wasn't there. Another trooper in attendance said that though he couldn't represent the agency, he would not object to dismissing the tickets, and the judge did just that.
McClellan walked out with no consequences, and even got handshakes from his fellow law enforcement officers.
"If the FHP allows it to stand, what they're saying is the law does not apply to us, even if we kill people," said Dennis Kenney, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former Florida police officer.
The hearing, captured on video, contributed to the firing of an FHP commander, and on Friday FHP announced that a sergeant would be recommended for demotion.
The trooper who issued the citations has been exonerated — FHP found he had a legitimate reason to miss court — but seven other troopers remain under investigation for their conduct in the hearing. FHP is still trying to sort out what happened in the courtroom.
"We really can't speculate," said Capt. Nancy Rasmussen, spokeswoman for the highway patrol. "Hopefully, through those investigations we'll find out."
A Sun Sentinel investigative series last year found extreme speeding by South Florida law enforcement officers, both on and off duty. A culture of professional courtesy resulted in cops being cited and punished far less frequently than other drivers, even when their speeding caused deaths or serious injury.
The crash that landed McClellan in court happened on a two-lane road in rural Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, with a speed limit of 55 mph. The trooper, who joined FHP in 2006, was on duty the afternoon of Feb. 10, 2012, when he responded to a call about someone throwing rocks from an overpass.
Accelerating with no emergency lights, the trooper reached 102 mph in his Crown Victoria, heading toward a curve with a recommended speed limit of 35 mph, according to FHP records. Coming the other way was the Mitsubishi with two women and a 12-year-old girl, on their way home to Quincy after picking the child up from school, relatives said.
As McClellan reached the curve, he veered off the road, then swerved into the other lane and smashed into the Mitsubishi. Passenger Michelle Campbell, 51, died several hours later from her injuries. Campbell's granddaughter, 12, flew through the windshield, and the other woman, her niece, suffered serious injuries, records show.
FHP Cpl. C. Brooks Yarborough investigated the crash and found McClellan responsible. Prosecutors declined to file criminal charges, determining that the trooper's driving did not rise to the level of vehicular homicide.
"He responded to [the call] rapidly because that's a dangerous thing, rocks hitting cars," Willie Meggs, state attorney for the circuit that includes Gadsden County, told the Sun Sentinel. "We made the conclusion that there was a life lost, but he was trying to save a life."
Yarborough cited McClellan for careless driving, speeding, and failure to use his emergency lights — non-criminal traffic infractions typically punishable by fines.
A hearing was set for Nov. 5 before Gadsden County Judge Kathy Garner. Two hours before it started, Garner's assistant got a call saying Yarborough wouldn't be there, the judge announced at the hearing.
Yarborough had a "medical emergency" and notified his supervisor, Sgt. Aaron Stephens, that morning, said Rasmussen, the FHP spokeswoman. But Stephens failed to send someone else or request the hearing be rescheduled, she said.
When the case came up, seven troopers were in the courtroom, although the reason is unclear. FHP wouldn't say, and McClellan's lawyer said they may have been present for other cases being heard that day.
The judge asked if any of them was able to represent FHP against McClellan, and none said they could.
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