Judge: Retry beating case against Sarasota officer

Judge: Retry beating case against Sarasota officer

Lee Williams

Published: Sunday, March 4, 2012 at 12:56 p.m.

SARASOTA – A judge’s order issued last week will make it very difficult for the Sarasota Police officer who was caught on video and later fired for kicking a handcuffed Guatemalan immigrant to get his job back.

The ruling brings clarity to the convoluted case, and is a clear victory for the Citizens for Sunshine.

“We consider it a vindication of the public’s right to open government,” said attorney Andrea Mogensen, who represents the group.

Officer Christopher Childers was fired in November 2009 for excessive force and other charges, stemming from his arrest of Juan G. Perez, then a 23-year-old dishwasher, on public intoxication charges. The arrest and kicking of Perez, as well as an attempt to later pay him a hasty settlement, sparked a scandal that led to Childers being fired and, in part, to the resignation of Police Chief Peter Abbott.

Childers appealed his firing to the city Civil Service Board. Before the board could render a decision it was stopped because of allegations that two of its members violated the state Government-in-the-Sunshine law by discussing the case during off-the-record breaks at a hearing on April 20, 2010. The city acknowledged the open government violations happened.

At a hearing last month, Circuit Court Judge Lee E. Haworth had to decide how to remedy, or in legal parlance “cure” the potential Sunshine Law violations.

Mogensen argued that a new Civil Service Board should hear the case from the beginning.

That scenario was not good for Childers because the original board had already dismissed two of the most serious charges that led to Childers’ termination before it was stopped by a court order.

Nevin Weiner, a union attorney representing Childers for the Southwest Florida Police Benevolent Association, argued that the board should pick up where it left off in 2010, and only consider the remaining minor charges – a scenario that would likely return his client to the police force.

Judge Haworth found that Sunshine Law violations had occurred and declared any decision made by the original Civil Service Board to be “null and void.”

Haworth ordered the city to convene a new board to hear the evidence of all four administrative charges against Childers.

The judge retained the right to determine Mogensen’s legal fees, which the city must now pay.

“We’re disappointed,” Weiner said of the judge’s decision.

“The decisions of the (2010 Civil Service) Board shouldn’t have been nullified, but the city took a position that left the judge no choice,” Weiner said.

Weiner confirmed Childers will appeal his firing to a new Civil Service Board.

“This time we hope he’ll be exonerated,” he said.