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Law and Order

What Does the Culpable Negligence Charge Against Suspended PG Chief Tom Lewis Mean?

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Michael Hirsh

Jury selection in the trial of suspended Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis began this morning. Lewis is charged with culpable negligence in the death of 73-year-old Mary Knowlton, who was shot and killed by a Punta Gorda police officer during a shoot/don’t shoot demonstration last August. Just what is “culpable negligence?”

On March 23, 2017, State Attorney Steve Russell announced the second degree misdemeanor charge as, 

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Credit Michael Hirsh

“Allegedly, on or about August 9th of 2016, did unlawfully in Charlotte County, through culpable negligence expose Mary Knowlton to personal injury by failing to implement and utilize sufficient safety protocols contrary to Florida Statute.”

When you research that statute, you find yourself slogging through a legal swamp of not terribly precise language. As defined under Florida case law and the Florida Standard Jury Instructions, which is what the judge will give the six person jury just before they begin deliberations, culpable negligence is a “course of conduct showing reckless disregard to human life, or for the safety of persons exposed to its dangerous effects, or such an entire want of care as to raise a presumption of conscious indifference to consequences, or which shows wantonness, recklessness, or a grossly careless disregard for the safety and welfare of others.”

Keep in mind there are a lot of “ors” there, rather than “ands.”

And it gets deeper and muddier. Under Florida Statutes Section 784.05 the crime of Culpable Negligence consists of two elements: the accused exposed a person to personal injury or inflicted personal injury on that person. And the accused did so with “culpable negligence.”

In pre-trial arguments before the judge, Assistant State Attorney John Dommerich took note that Chief Lewis, when he was a captain before becoming chief, found videos of a shoot/don’t shoot scenario conducted by another police department on YouTube. Dommerich said Lewis then adapted what he saw there so it could be used as “entertainment” when the department offered its Citizens Academy tours for civilians. He said what Lewis did not do was create a written protocol that spelled out who was responsible for safety checks before the demonstration, and insist there absolutely must be safety checks of any weapons to be used during the demonstration.

Last August 9, there was no safety officer who took responsibility for checking Officer Lee Coel’s .38-caliber revolver to make sure it was loaded with blank ammunition rather than the lethal bullets that killed Mary Knowlton.  Dommerich said in court that Chief Lewis, therefore, was culpably negligent.

But the pre-trial arguments indicate this case could hinge on the difference between culpable negligence and ordinary negligence.

“We very rarely used it when I was in office,” said retired State Attorney Joe D’Alessandro. “We didn’t charge anybody with culpable negligence. It’s used a lot in civil suits.”              

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Credit Michael Hirsh

D’Alessandro served 34 years as the chief prosecutor in the Twentieth Judicial Circuit. He said he’d explain the difference between culpable negligence and ordinary negligence to a jury with an example like this one.

“I’d like you to walk my dog today and I don’t tell you the dog’s attacked four people in its lifetime, and the dog goes out and gets loose and does something, I’m really the one that set that in motion. My actions were culpable because I didn’t tell you or let you know. I put you in a dangerous situation,” said D’Alessandro.

So the state will try to make the case that by not having written safety protocols and enforcing them, Chief Lewis was culpably negligent. The defense has indicated it believes other high ranking Punta Gorda Police officers had the responsibility for everything that happened the night Mary Knowlton died. It plans to call those officers as witnesses.

The trial begins at the Justice Center in Punta Gorda Monday morning, June 26, 2017. Spectators will not be admitted if they’re wearing anything to show support for either side. The judge has specifically forbidden off duty law enforcement officers from wearing their uniforms in the courtroom.