The Miami cop who became the poster child for off-duty police speeding with his 100-mph plus commutes through Broward County should be fired, Internal Affairs investigators recommended Monday.
Officer Fausto Lopez demonstrated "a willful and wanton disregard for his safety and the safety of persons and property of Miami-Dade and Broward counties" by flying down Florida's Turnpike at speeds up to 120 mph, according to an eight-page Internal Affairs report released late Monday.
Internal Affairs investigators also are recommending that 37 other officers be disciplined for off-duty speeding with punishments ranging from written reprimands to two weeks' suspension without pay, said Maj. Delrish Moss.
Lopez brought the spotlight on off-duty police speeding in October when he led a trooper on a high-speed pursuit while running late for a moonlighting job. Caught on video, the chase and the trooper's gunpoint confrontation of Lopez was endlessly replayed on local television news and garnered national attention.
That prompted a Sun Sentinel investigation in February into speeding police officers on South Florida's toll highways. Using SunPass toll records, the investigation revealed almost 800 cops from a dozen agencies drove 90 to 130 mph at least once over a 13-month period. Most were commuting to and from work.
After the newspaper's investigative series, a total of 141 police officers from eight South Florida law enforcement agencies either have been disciplined or face discipline as a result of off-duty speeding.
Lopez, 36, had been the most frequent speeder, routinely driving above 100 mph on his commute from Coconut Creek to Miami, only slowing to near-legal limits after the video of his traffic stop became public, the Sun Sentinel found.
Lopez was criminally charged with misdemeanor reckless driving for the October incident and ended up pleading no contest. He was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and has no criminal record. He was suspended from the Miami Police Department for a month as a result of that speeding incident.
A phone call to Lopez's attorney in the criminal case was not returned on Monday night.
The Internal Affairs investigation confirmed the Sun Sentinel's findings in analyzing Lopez's speeds on the Turnpike from September to November. His speed peaked on Sept. 4 when he went an average 120.86 mph for the nearly 20-mile stretch from the Golden Glades toll booths to the Cypress Creek booths, according to the report.
When Lopez was asked Monday to sign the Internal Affairs report recommending his termination, he marked that he disagreed with the findings and suggested penalty. That's a strong indication he will appeal the recommendations to a police disciplinary review board. He has 10 days to file the appeal.
Once the board reviews the recommendation, the case will be passed up to Police Chief Manuel Orosa, who will make the department's final decision whether to terminate Lopez. That process could take a matter of weeks, Moss said.
The chief's decision could be appealed to the city's Civil Service board.
Once Lopez finishes his current suspension, he will return to duty as the discipline process plays out, Moss said. Lopez has been with the department for six years.
Moss said the message sent by Monday's recommendations should be clear: Police officers must hold themselves to the highest ethical standards. The department has a longstanding policy that forbids police officers from violating traffic laws, he said.
Armando Aguilar, president of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police, said he has been hearing from officers who want to appeal the recommendations made Monday.
"The City of Miami is being harsher in disciplining than other departments have," he said. "Most other departments have been retraining officers, counseling them. ... I would assume most [of the Miami police officers] are going to appeal their discipline."
Even if Lopez ends up losing his job, he could still be a police officer. Habitual speeding is not considered a moral character violation reportable to a state commission that certifies officers, said Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The Internal Affairs investigation is the latest fallout from the Sun Sentinel series. Earlier this month, Pembroke Pines police reprimanded one of their officers, Joel Cuarezma, and took his take-home car away for 70 days.
Punishment has been handed out to a broad spectrum of cops, including road patrol officers, state troopers and detectives. In Davie, a major and a captain were among those disciplined with either written reprimands or loss of a take-home car.
"The only explanation I can give is that I was probably hurrying due to a personal circumstance and was not paying attention to my speed,'' Carney wrote in response. "I apologize for my actions and realize that I was wrong.''
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