5 stories that shook up Florida

Looking back at a year of social change and shocking revelations.

Police screw-ups, cultural shifts, government overreach — 2013 had it all. Here’s what stood out.

Bad cops
For years, some residents in Tampa have complained about over-zealous DUI cops. But the greater public might not have learned the extent of such nefarious behavior if it hadn’t broken out during the Bubba the Love Sponge v. Todd Schnitt trial last winter.
Surely you recall this sleazy affair. On the night of Jan. 23, TPD Sgt. Ray Fernandez, a supervisor with the department’s DUI unit, began madly texting back and forth with his pal, attorney Adam Filthaut, whose firm happened to be representing Schnitt in his trial with Clem. Filthaut was giving Fernandez the play-by-play of what was going on inside Malio’s — while another member of his firm, Melissa Personius, was plying Schnitt attorney Phil Campbell with drinks. The comely paralegal than asked Campbell to drive her home. Campbell attempted to do so, but was immediately pulled over by Fernandez and busted for a DUI. The shit ultimately hit the fan and the FBI began investigating what looked like an obvious set-up.
This is the same Ray Fernandez who, we later learned, had pulled over Cuban activist Al Fox for allegedly drinking while driving. The 70-year-old Fox passed a Breathalyzer test twice, blowing 0.00 both times. Yet he was still arrested for a DUI.
Ultimately Fox was freed, Fernandez was shit-canned by Chief Jane Castor, and Fox is suing the department. The Hillsborough County State Attorney’s office ultimately threw out 12 cases involving Fernandez, and is still winding its way through more than three dozen other cases where he was involved.
As outrageous as those actions were, they pale in comparison to what other police departments have been up to in the Sunshine State. For example:
The Tallahassee Police Department: In November we learned that Florida State quarterback (and ultimately Heisman Trophy winner) Jameis Winston was being investigated regarding an alleged sexual assault. No charges were brought against him. But what seemed highly questionable was the fact that the Tallahassee Police waited 10 months before testing Winston’s DNA and did not immediately begin interviewing key witnesses, creating the appearance that the police wanted to impede the accuser’s case.
The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Department: In late November the New York Times published a lengthy Sunday front-page story about the 2010 death of Michelle O’Connell, a St. Augustine woman who was killed with the gun of her then-boyfriend, Jeremy Banks, a St. John’s county deputy. O’Connell’s mother and sister told the Times that Banks was abusive and might have been responsible for her death. The story laid out a convincing case.
But State Attorney Brad King told the St. Augustine Record earlier this month that the case won’t be reopened “based on what the New York Times did. There has to be substantial probative evidence, not just different people’s opinions about the evidence.”
Sanford Police Department: On July 13, a six-member, all-woman jury declared George Zimmerman not guilty in the killing of Trayvon Martin. While the verdict was somewhat controversial, the Sanford Florida Police’s refusal to arrest Zimmerman for weeks after he shot and killed the 17-year-old teen in late February of 2012 was the real catalyst that caused people around the country to believe, legitimately or not, that race was a factor in the case.
After Zimmerman was acquitted of murder, The Daily Show’s Jon Oliver labeled Florida “The Worst State” and quipped, “Just because you’re shaped like some combination of a gun and a dick doesn’t mean you have to act that way.”

Florida enters the 21st century on LGBT issues
Although elements of Florida’s law enforcement may be stuck in an endless rerun of In the Heat of the Night, social progress is on the upswing in other spheres, none bigger in 2013 than the gay rights movement. To wit:
• A Public Religion Research poll showed that 54 percent of voters support marriage for gay couples in Florida, and Florida LGBT activists are debating whether to work for a repeal of the state’s law banning same-sex marriage in 2014, or to wait for 2016 and a more progressive-friendly electorate. But the state may not be quite ready to pass such a measure, which would require 60 percent support. Nadine Smith of Equality Florida says that instead of going to a ballot measure, there’s a chance that a potential lawsuit might be filed in 2014 to force the issue.
• A year ago the first openly gay members of the Florida House were elected: Joe Saunders from Orlando and David Richardson from Miami Beach. That’s “changed the tone in Tallahassee,” avers Equality Florida’s Smith, referring to the fact that for the first time ever, the “Families First” bill, which would allow domestic partnerships statewide, passed through its first committee with bipartisan support, though it went no further.
• And in St. Petersburg the two newest members of the City Council, Darden Rice and Amy Foster, happen to be lesbians, though that fact was barely noted at all during their respective campaigns for office.
Of course it would be inaccurate to say that gay rights have been fully embraced in Florida. Not when you have Hillsborough County being the only local government that refuses to create domestic partnership benefits for unmarried couples. Yes, the BOCC did repeal its odious 2005 law banning “gay pride” events. In Hillsborough, when it comes to LGBT issues, that’s progress.