Cutting hours short can be a crime for Florida cops

Police officers who habitually leave work early can be charged with theft, a felony under Florida law.

Collecting a paycheck for time not worked amounts to stealing from your employer — the taxpayers, in the case of cops.

"If they're only doing it one or two times, we're not going to charge them," said Tim Donnelly, head of the Broward State Attorney's special prosecutions unit. "It becomes criminal if it's more than a couple of instances."

A decision on whether to charge the officers whose SunPass times revealed they routinely left early would be based on several factors, including whether their bosses knew, Donnelly said.

"It may be management has said that's OK," he said. "You have to look at the circumstances. Did someone give that person permission?"

Some police departments use informal systems of compensating officers for working extra hours, making cases hard to prove even when the time off is not documented, he said.

"A lot of things we encounter is comp time or flex time — 'Oh, they came in early or they worked late and that's why on this day they're leaving early,'" Donnelly said. "We've seen a couple of cases where that's actually legitimate."

Prosecutors charged Eric Wright, a former lieutenant with the Broward Sheriff's Office in Weston, with 14 counts of grand theft and one count of organized scheme to defraud in June. While on duty, Wright worked security details at Deerfield Beach High School and Houston's Restaurant in Pompano Beach at least 10 times between August 2010 and May 2011, according to an arrest report.

On another four days, Wright arrived at his BSO job late or left early without authorization, one time working just four hours of his 10-hour shift, court records say. BSO fired Wright, a cop for 28 years, and he has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison on each charge.

Prosecutors are deciding whether to file criminal charges against another ex-BSO deputy, Erik Knutsen, who was fired in February for spending hours in strip clubs when he was on duty.

Besides theft, police officers can be charged with official misconduct or falsifying records if they claim on official documents to be somewhere they're not.

Ultimately, police brass should be keeping tabs on their officers, Donnelly said.

"My position with a lot of those cases is that's a management issue," he said. "If someone isn't working and you know they're not working, you should be bringing them in and disciplining them."

If the bosses are unaware, he said, there's less chance of prosecuting and winning a conviction.

"It makes a difficult case for us if you bring in the captain or the chief and say, 'How did you not know this?'" Donnelly said. "It's a poor reflection on management if it's gone on so long and no one's caught it."

skestin@tribune.com, 954-356-4510, Twitter @SallyKestin