By Rafael Olmeda
LAUDERHILL, Fla. — Prosecutors are hitting a Lauderhill cop where it hurts, charging him with a felony for getting a female drunken driver to punch him in the genitals, according to the Broward State Attorney's Office.
Because he liked it, prosecutors said, the officer is being charged with unlawful compensation, defined as the obtaining of an illegal benefit for performing or declining to perform a public duty — in this case, arresting the driver.
A second officer in the case is being accused of having sex with the passenger of the same car, all the while threatening to arrest her as well.
Officers Thomas Merenda and Franklin Hartley turned themselves in Thursday night. Both are charged with unlawful compensation, a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison, and battery, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days, stemming from a May 24, 2012, encounter with the two women, who had been drinking at the Vegas Cabaret strip club on University Drive.
Merenda's lawyer, Eric Schwartzreich, said the charges against his client were baffling.
"The only thing that's nuts here is the prosecution of this case and the way it's been filed," Schwartzreich said.
According to prosecutors, Hartley, 32, stopped the women in their car after they left the club and, threatening to arrest the driver, ordered them to follow him to the parking lot of a nearby mall. That's where Merenda, 35, met up with them.
According to arrest reports, Hartley ordered the passenger to perform oral sex on him, then had intercourse with her. Merenda's request, according to the reports, was less time-consuming: "Officer Merenda asked the victim [name withheld] to punch him in the 'nuts,' meaning genital area."
Merenda, "who at the time of the incident was an on-duty public servant, did intentionally, unlawfully and corruptly request and accept the benefit of having the victim ... strike him in the groin by threatening arrest, citation or seizure," according to Merenda's arrest report.
Hartley faces two unlawful compensation charges — one for having sex with the passenger, and the other for encouraging the driver to punch Merenda. "Tom really enjoys this," he reportedly told the driver.
Hartley asked for and received the passenger's phone number, and he sent her a photograph via text message some time after the parking lot encounter, according to Hartley's arrest report.
The Sun Sentinel is not naming the women, ages 29 and 31 at the time of the alleged incident, because of the nature of the allegations.
During the investigation that followed the incident, detectives tracked the GPS monitors on the marked patrol cars assigned to Merenda and Hartley, finding that both were behind 7300 W. Commercial Blvd. for more than an hour and a half.
Detectives also found the passenger's underwear at the scene, and testimony from three women claiming Merenda enjoyed sexual pain, with two of the women specifically mentioning the pain of being struck in the groin.
Schwartzreich remained incredulous.
"We look forward to him being vindicated of these outrageous, outlandish and absurd accusations," he said of Merenda. "Unlawful compensation is defined as gaining a benefit or advantage. As a member of the male gender, I can tell you that being struck in the testicles is not a benefit or advantage. Any male can attest to that. He's not into that kind of thing."
Hartley's lawyer, Anthony Livoti, said several aspects of the arrest reports struck him as suspicious. There is no DNA evidence, Livoti said, and the reports say Hartley threatened to arrest the passenger as well as the driver.
"Why would an officer threaten to arrest a passenger in a vehicle for DUI?" Livoti said. He also wondered why an officer would have a drunken driver remain behind the wheel and follow him to another location. Finally, he questioned why the passenger gave Hartley her phone number, and he claimed she sent him a photo of herself as well.
Both Merenda and Hartley are on unpaid administrative leave from the Lauderhill Police Department. Before the incident, Hartley had served five years as a cop, and Merenda had served 11. Merenda was once Crisis Team Officer of the Year, while Hartley once received a commendation for helping capture a suspected terrorist.
Merenda is married and has two children. "His wife is aware of the accusations and supports him unequivocally, 110 percent," Schwartzreich said.
Hartley is also married, has two children and has his family's support, Livoti said.
Lauderhill Police Chief Andrew Smalling issued a statement expressing disapproval of the officers' alleged actions.
"I and the men and women of the Lauderhill Police department are truly disappointed with the nature of the allegations made against these two officers and if they are proven to be true, the consequences should be severe," Smalling said. "The alleged actions of these two officers are in no way any reflection of the character and integrity of the many hard working men and women of the Lauderhill Police Department."
Bradford Cohen, a lawyer representing the reported victims, said they were distraught about the whole experience and are hoping the trial reveals just how egregious the officers' conduct was.
"The allegations are extremely serious in regard to both officers," Cohen said. "They look forward to bringing these two individuals to justice."
He said the women have not made a decision on whether to file a civil suit.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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