Badges and Behavior


The Office of Judges of Compensation Claims is fortunate to be protected by armed guards. We have had that accommodation since the 1990s when a lawyer shooting in south Florida made the news in workers' compensation circles. It is likely that few community members today remember the "old days" before there was security, after all that was 27 years ago. When we first got security, it was the Florida Highway Patrol. They remained until 2021.

As a result, when I first came to Pensacola, I met several patrol officers as they staffed the office. They were genial, helpful, and welcome. Their presence was reassuring, as was the presence of a "black and tan" (the slang for a trooper car, which they taught me) in the parking lot. After their services had been discontinued for a few years, I was making a trip somewhere only to find my intended route to Intestate 10 unavailable. I was therefore on an alternate secondary highway at around 03:30 in a rented car. 

As I drove the nearly deserted road, I saw only one other vehicle: tail lights in the distance. I struggled with the unfamiliar car, unable to get the cruise control to work. I would get to the speed, push a button and the car would momentarily function and then slow. I would reaccelerate and try again, each time with the same result. The car in the distance pulled over, which I thought nothing of. I continued to focus on this recalcitrant machine. But, as I approached, I noted that the other vehicle was a "black and tan," and soon its flashing lights were activated. 

The trooper examined my license and car rental agreement. He explained his perception that I was driving erratically, having noted my near-constant vacillation in speed. I explained my unfamiliarity with the car and the difficulty with the cruise control. He was genial and understanding. Then he asked where I was going, and I provided that city.  

Then "so traveling for business, where do you work." This an uncomfortable question, to which I replied simply "I work for the state." He persisted, "what department?" I deflected. Then he was more direct "aren't you the work comp judge from Pensacola?" That was a direct question that was hard to dodge. I suspect my expression gave me away because before I could answer he followed with "I thought that was you." He had guarded the PNS office and recalled me, though I did not recognize him. In fairness, I met many troopers, but he met but one judge. I was still chagrinned at not recognizing him. 

Needless to say, there was no reason for further interaction. I had not been driving unsafely and was not a danger as the speed vacillations had made him initially suspect. He wished me a good day and we parted company. I have often reflected on that interaction and the prohibition on "playing the judge card." There have been a few judges over the years that have done so and avoided consequences; I hear stories. And, there have been a few that played that card and created consequences that would have been better avoided. I reflected on that recently writing Privilege and Audacity (January 2023). There, a judge is accused of playing the judge card and is facing a hearing over it. 

And, this all made me think of the news coverage in 2022 regarding Tampa's police chief. According to NPR, she was a passenger in a golf cart driven by her husband. They were stopped by a deputy sheriff for driving on a road without a license plate. The police chief presciently asked "is your body camera on?" She then identifies herself as the Tampa police chief and asks the deputy to "just let us go." She reportedly also gave the deputy her business card and said "if you ever need anything, call me. Seriously. I appreciate you." 

It goes without saying that the Code of Judicial Conduct discussed in Privilege and Audacity does not apply to a police officer or chief. However, the impact is similar. There is an appearance of impropriety when someone suggests that some status or title might glean preferential treatment. Upon learning of the chief's behavior, the Tampa Mayor expressed "disappointment" and "requested . . . resignation." The police chief resigned in December 2022.

The Tampa Bay Times did a bit of a deeper dive into the Mayor's comments. It noted that the Mayor reminded that "The Tampa Police Department has a code of conduct that includes high standards for ethical and professional behavior." And reiterated that the chief was bound by those standards and more importantly "to also lead by example." The Mayor concluded "it was 'unacceptable for any public employee, and especially the city’s top law enforcement leader, to ask for special treatment because of their position.'” 

The Times also reported an ancillary issue from the traffic stop video. That conversation included a representation by the Chief that she was a local resident, in Pinellas County. As the video gained circulation, there was discussion of a Tampa requirement that city officials reside in Tampa (not in Pinellas county, but in Hillsborough). Though that is an ancillary issue, a council member noted the point and said "officials should respect 'the spirit as well as the letter of the law.'" And that sounds a bit like the "appearance of impropriety" standard that is in the Code of Judicial Conduct. 

The point of it all is clear. There is no appropriate business encounter in which it is appropriate to "play the judge card." Likely, there is similarly not an appropriate instance to play the Police Chief card either. In Judicial Self-Promotion (April 2017), there is a discussion of the challenges involved in judges being given traffic citations, and identification as a judge in such encounters. One might argue that there is no Florida opinion on point regarding such identification, but one might also argue no specific opinion in that regard is necessary.  

It is possible that one may be recognized in the course of a traffic stop or other public encounter. It is a challenge that should drive us to avoid traffic stops when possible. It is absolutely inappropriate to identify oneself as a judge or police chief in order to curry favor or ameliorate consequences. Doing so violates the rules, and even in the narrowest of circumstances can easily create the appearance of impropriety. There is no instance in which "I'm a judge" is the go-to answer. That does not mean one will not be recognized. It is hoped that if one is, that recognition will not alter the outcome in any way.  

The point is that there is no grounds for special treatment or consideration. It should not be offered, given, or accepted. And, above all else, it should never be sought. Leave the badge in your pocket and sign for the ticket. As the Mayor noted, lead by example. 

By Judge David Langham

Courtesy of Florida Workers' Comp

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    About The Author

    • Judge David Langham

      David Langham is the Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. He has been involved in workers’ compensation for over 25 years as an attorney, an adjudicator, and administrator. He has delivered hundreds of professional lectures, published numerous articles on workers’ compensation in a variety of publications, and is a frequent blogger on Florida Workers’ Compensation Adjudication. David is a founding director of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary and the Professional Mediation Institute, and is involved in the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC). He is a vocal advocate of leveraging technology and modernizing the dispute resolution processes of workers’ compensation.

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