Deputy Michael Szeliga of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department has been reprimanded and suspended for reportedly showing up to an awards ceremony in a highly intoxicated state. While the incident is embarrassing enough in itself for the deputy and his department, the circumstances make it that much bizarre.
It wasn’t just an awards ceremony. It was an awards ceremony put on by the organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving—a ceremony in which Deputy Szeliga was to be honored for making more than 100 DUI arrests.
Szeliga had reportedly taken a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey with him when he drove to neighboring Tampa county for the awards ceremony, held at a hotel where he was to receive training. He reportedly skipped most of the training sessions. When he came from his room into the conference hall where he was to receive the award, the chief of a local department noticed that he was “wasted,” and a confrontation ensued in which the deputy made disrespectful comments to the chief. He then returned to his room, drank some more, and went to the hotel pool where other deputies who had skipped out on the training events to drink were lounging.
The Pinellas County Sheriff has apologized for the incident, and Deputy Szeliga himself has also issued a written apology. He was disciplined with a one-day suspension.
Police are not Perfect
Obviously this incident does not reflect well on Deputy Szeliga, his colleagues who skipped training sessions with him, or the department as a whole. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri commented:
“It was wrong, and again, one of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard of. When I first heard about it, that was (what) my reaction was. ‘Come on, you’ve got to be kidding me. Really?’”
Certainly this does not represent the actions of all police. Nevertheless, it serves as a reminder that police are not perfect.
Lessons for DUI Prosecutions
In a DUI case, judges and juries often must make their ultimate decisions by deciding whether to believe the arresting officer or the accused. Many people are more likely to believe the police than the defendant in these situations. While an officer’s personal moral character is generally irrelevant (unless it involves a history of lying), there are still many reasons to challenge this default presumption in favor of the police on the part of factfinders. The fact of moral weakness combined with the systemic issues discussed below can be a toxic combination leading to many improper arrests and charges being filed. This does not mean the officers are necessarily bad—only that they are fallible human beings.
First, police have an incentive to characterize the facts in a way that makes the defendant look bad and makes them look good. They are rewarded based on the number of arrests they make, as is demonstrated by the case of Deputy Szeliga, who was to be honored for hitting the magic number of 100 DUI arrests. This incentive may cause many of them to be overly aggressive in trying to make DUI arrests. It may cause them to manufacture a pretext for pulling someone over when the real reason is a hunch.
Second, they are not always as qualified in performing sobriety assessments as they or the prosecutor would like you to think. In reality, they are often trained to simply recite certain phrases in their reports that, if believed, lead to certain legal conclusions. For instance, they frequently use phrases such as “bloodshot, watery eyes,” “the odor of an alcoholic beverage,” “slurred, delayed speech,” and others. These are not necessarily always the fruit of direct observations of the officers so much as they are the words they have been trained to write so as to justify making an arrest after the fact.
Relatedly, many officers are not very good at administering or interpreting field sobriety tests (FSTs). Many DUI prosecutions are riddled with procedural errors in the way tests are administered, instructions are given, or results are interpreted. Often they are simply going through the motions to verify the conclusions they have already arrived at by hunch. That’s not to say that their hunches are not sometimes right. These are highly intuitive people in tune with their instincts. But it is to say that they can be prone to cutting procedural corners in ways that compromise your 4th amendment and due process rights.
Contact a Colorado DUI Attorney if Arrested
If you have been arrested for DUI in the Denver area, don’t let a sloppy police investigation deprive you of a fair trial. Contact the attorneys at the Tiftickjian Law Firm today. We have the resources and the expertise to identify the weak spots in the government’s case against you. We know how to cross-examine the arresting officer and to challenge the basis for the arrest. The prosecutors and the police fight for numbers to show results. We fight for individuals to get justice. Call us today and don’t be steamrolled by overzealous law enforcement.