What to do when police pull you over
Miami’s most famous lead-footed cop has been fired.
Fausto Lopez’s cop-vs.-state trooper high-speed chase, which was captured on video and made national headlines, ignited a firestorm among police agencies and spurred a public outcry over officers who use their badges as a license to break traffic laws that average American citizens have to abide by every day.
“Justice shouldn’t play favorites here,’’ said Nova Southeastern University criminal justice Professor Bob Jarvis. “Police officers, just because they wear badges, should not use them to cut themselves a break.’’
Lopez, a six-year-veteran, was terminated Thursday on grounds that he breached discipline, acted recklessly with city property and engaged in disgraceful conduct. The internal affairs probe followed a wild, high-speed chase between Lopez, who was running late to an early-morning off-duty job, and a Florida Highway Patrol trooper in October. He had been suspended with pay since June.
Lopez, 36, was arrested at gunpoint on Oct. 11 by Trooper Jane Watts, who spotted his patrol car weaving erratically at speeds up to 120 miles per hour, on the turnpike in Broward County. Believing that a police officer couldn’t possibly be driving so dangerously, she suspected that someone else was behind the wheel of a stolen patrol car. She activated her lights, but he would not stop, proceeding at excessive speed.
Her supervisor, Sgt. Reynaldo Sanchez, ordered Watts to “back off,” and she braked and turned off her emergency lights, but she continued to follow the marked vehicle at high speed, according to a Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles investigation. After seven minutes, a span recorded on the trooper’s dashboard camera, Lopez pulled over, and Watts approached his vehicle with her gun drawn. When she saw that Lopez was in uniform, she put the gun down, but still handcuffed him, saying he had intentionally ignored her order to stop.
The traffic stop sparked tension between FHP and Miami cops, some of whom claimed the trooper showed a lack of professional courtesy to a fellow law enforcement officer.
The incident also led to an investigation by the Sun Sentinel, which analyzed SunPass toll data to calculate that Lopez and a slew of other local cops were speeding in their patrol cars while not on duty. As a result, the city of Miami recommended discipline against 38 other speeding cops, with penalties ranging from reprimands to suspensions of up to two weeks. But only Lopez was targeted for termination.
Detectives also analyzed SunPass data, calculating the speed between toll booths and how long it took Lopez to get from booth to booth.
The city subsequently learned that Lopez was a habitual offender who showed a pattern of reckless driving while off duty in his take-home patrol car, consistently speeding in excess of 100 miles per hour during one period between September and November.
“As somebody who is a law enforcement official, they have a higher responsibility to obey the law,” Jarvis said. “Here, there was no emergency that required excessive speed. I’m sorry, but I’m with the officer who pulled him over.’’
Lopez eventually pleaded no contest to reckless driving, paid $3,300 in fines and accepted 100 hours of community service.
Watts, a 15-year veteran, was vilified by Miami police and other agencies, some of whom posted insults about her and her appearance on law enforcement blogs. At one point, feces were smeared on a state trooper’s vehicle. That led to a backlash movement in support of Watts on Facebook.
A state probe eventually concluded that Watts “used her judgment and discretion afforded to her.”
Lopez could not be reached for comment. In June, when the department suspended him, he said he disagreed with the facts of the investigation, which concluded that he should be fired. He may appeal the termination to the city’s civil service board.
Calls to Miami’s Fraternal Order of Police, which represents Lopez, were not returned Friday.