Sheriff skirts internal policies over TV reporter citations
Multiple traffic stop citations, misdemeanor ordered voided by Sheriff John Rutherford; reporter had been instructed to remove FOP emblem from her vehicle
By Topher Sanders
The Florida Times-Union
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The first time WJXT Channel 4 traffic anchor and reporter Ashley Mitchem was stopped in June 2012 the police officer said she was traveling 17 miles per hour over the speed limit.
She got a warning.
Four months later the same Jacksonville Sheriff's officer pulled her over again, saying she was going 33 miles per hour over the speed limit. He gave her instructions to remove a Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police emblem from her car.
She got another warning.
In August 2012, Officer Jose Marrero stopped Mitchem for the third time. He said she was traveling eight miles over the speed limit and she still had the emblem on the car.
She was given tickets for speeding and failure to change her address and a misdemeanor notice to appear for having the FOP emblem on her car.
Less than two weeks later, Sheriff John Rutherford ordered the tickets and the misdemeanor voided.
The citations were voided but in the process the sheriff's office skirted its own operational orders, failing to notifying the issuing officer and not involving Chief Judge Donald Moran, which are both required under the Sheriff's Office's rules.
Marrero, who declined to comment for this story, detailed his interactions with Mitchem in an email two months to one of his supervisors. He sent the email to Lt. Trudy Callahan, who inquired about the matter after she said it was brought to her attention that the tickets were voided without Marrero's knowledge.
Marrero said it was during his second stop of Mitchem that she told him she was given the emblem by another officer, according to Marrero's email. He also tells Callahan that her learned from an officer in the Sheriff's Office's Integrity Unit that Undersheriff Dwain Senterfitt said the tickets were voided because Senterfitt believed Marrero had stalked Mitchem.
"It didn't make sense to me that the department (Senterfitt) thought I was stalking the defendant, but yet nobody ever talked to me about it nor took me off of the street," Marrero wrote in his email. "I would consider such an allegation to be very serious in nature, and I don't feel that the voiding of a criminal NTA and 2 traffic citations, as a sole action, would be considered as appropriately handling the allegation of stalking."
Senterfitt referred questions to the sheriff's communications office.
Mitchem told the Times-Union Tuesday that she didn't accuse Marrero of stalking her, but she said her interactions with Marrero made her uncomfortable. She said during the second stop that Marrero followed her from the J. Turner Butler area to about eight miles away on Prudential Drive.
And during one stop, she said, Marrero kept her on the side of the road for an hour.
She said she initially was going to use an attorney to fight the tickets, but she was advised by a friend to make a complaint.
"I just called the sheriff because obviously I've met him on stories," she said.
Frank Powers, WJXT's assignment manager, said the news station was aware of Mitchem's interactions with Marrero and that Mitchem called Rutherford. Powers said he couldn't speak to whether Mitchem violated any of the news station's policies by placing the call to Rutherford, but he did want to clarify one point Marrero raised in his email.
"No one here at Channel 4 asked JSO to spike that ticket," he said.
Rutherford said the totality of Marrero's interactions with Mitchem didn't look good, but he said he didn't think Marrero had stalked Mitchem or he would have had him investigated.
Rutherford had the tickets and the misdemeanor voided after he received a call from Mitchem complaining about the tickets.
"And from that conversation it sounded like one of these situations where an officer may have followed the letter of the law but not necessarily the spirit of the law," Rutherford said. He said it looked to him as if Marrero was using the letter of the law to make a point to Mitchem.
Had Mitchem fraudulently obtained the emblem, Rutherford said, then he might have charged her. The sheriff said Mitchem did not receive special treatment and that his having the tickets voided had nothing to do with her job or who she was dating -- Rutherford said Mitchem told him the emblem came from her boyfriend who was a sheriff's officer.
"This is not someone getting special consideration just because they are a TV personality," he said. "That don't impress me."
Mitchem declined to comment on whether the emblem was given to her by her boyfriend at the time.
The Sheriff's office's operational orders state that "only the Chief Circuit Judge at the request of a chief of higher authority may void" a citation that has been logged with the Clerk of Courts.
All three of Mitchem's tickets had been entered into the clerk's system. Chief Judge Donald Moran played no role in the tickets being voided, according Moran's office.
The operational orders also state that the issuing officer must be notified when tickets logged with the Clerk of Courts are going to be voided.
According to Marrero's November 2013 email he hadn't been notified.
Rutherford said tickets are voided all the time and he assumes proper protocols are followed. But in this case he said he's okay with the operational orders not being followed because he asked to have the tickets voided.
"They should have talked to the officer so we don't have this situation again," Rutherford said. "But if they didn't, ya know what, I'm okay with that too. It's not that big a deal."
The Times-Union has asked the Clerk of Court for data about voided citations. The data isn't available yet.
When asked why he didn't want to hear Marrero's side of the story before making the decision, Rutherford said he didn't need Marrero's permission to have the ticket voided and he thought someone in Marrero's chain of command had spoken to him. Rutherford said Mitchem told him Marrero made her remove the emblem during the third stop.
According to Marrero's email he asked for another officer to join him on his third stop of Mitchem as "back-up unit and witness."
Rutherford called the whole circumstance "ridiculous," and that Marrero should have given Mitchem tickets during one of the first two stops if he was going to cite her at all.
"Not a misdemeanor citation for a sticker that she didn't put on there," he said. "She probably has no idea about that law, nobody does. And he's going to have her appear in court? For that? That ain't the spirit of the law."
The Times-Union has asked the Clerk of Court for data about how often people are charged with unlawful display of the FOP emblem. The data isn't available yet.
In Marrero's email he stated that he feared of retaliation for reporting the matter to the integrity unit and became disgusted after he learned the tickets were voided without his knowledge.
From the email it does not appear that Marrero knew Rutherford made the decision.
"I had often heard the many different appointed staff encouraging officers to 'do the right thing' and to always be 'riding for the brand'," Marrero wrote. "I felt that some of the very people that always preached these things to us were potentially the very ones that were violating the public's trust."
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