Miami Officer Fausto Lopez, pulled over by FHP trooper in 120 mph chase, gets plea offer

MIAMI, Fla. -- The off-duty Miami cop clocked going 120 mph on Florida's Turnpike last fall could stay out of jail but end up with a criminal record under a plea deal offered by prosecutors.

Officer Fausto Lopez, of Coconut Creek, made national headlines in October when he blew past morning commuters and a state trooper in Broward County while rushing to a moonlighting job in Miami.

The pursuit ended with the trooper drawing her gun and handcuffing Lopez and led to a vicious feud between the Florida Highway Patrol and Miami police. But Lopez's excess speed was not unusual. A Sun Sentinel investigation last month found he frequently drove above 100 mph, and hundreds of other South Florida cops sped excessively as well, often while commuting to or from work.

On the morning of the Oct. 11 traffic stop, Lopez "was all over the road, changing lanes, one side to the other,'' recalled Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Jane Watts in a recently released statement.

A six-year veteran of the Miami police force, Lopez was charged with reckless driving, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum of 90 days in jail. If he pleads guilty or no contest and agrees to pay a fine and court costs, prosecutors will not seek jail time, Assistant State Attorney David Schulson said at a Broward County Court hearing on Monday.

County Judge Melinda Brown could decide to keep the conviction off his record and said she would consider his history. Lopez has no prior offenses.

In addition to facing a fine of up to $500, he could be ordered to repay the state's $3,300 cost of preparing the case for trial and hiring an expert witness, Schulson said.

Lopez has until March 20 to accept the offer before Schulson said he will add a second charge of reckless driving for fleeing from Watts. Lopez then would be facing a trial and potentially jail on both counts.

Lopez is weighing the offer, his attorney, Alberto Milian of Coral Gables, said after the court hearing.

"When a police officer gets charged with anything, they have to worry about two things — not only what happens in court, but they also get disciplined by their department,'' Milian said.

A reckless driving conviction would not affect Lopez's ability to be a police officer. But his bosses at the Miami Police Department haven't determined the fate of his job.

Video from Watts' dashboard camera shows she followed Lopez for seven minutes. At one point he appeared to be pulling over, she said in her statement.

"All of a sudden, he just punches it again,'' Watts said. "I've got my, you know, lights and siren on, and he's just, he's not stopping ... We went at least 10 miles.''

The feud that erupted over the incident led to personal attacks against Watts on law enforcement blogs, and an FHP car being smeared with feces. But many ordinary drivers were happy to see a cop being held to the same traffic laws they must obey.

The Sun Sentinel's investigation into police speeding found Lopez routinely sped through Broward in his patrol car. An analysis of his SunPass toll records showed he averaged 100 mph or higher on 114 days in the year before he was pulled over by the trooper.

Lopez slowed down only after the story of his traffic stop broke and the trooper's video went viral.

Lopez was the most frequent speeder of almost 800 South Florida law enforcement officers the Sun Sentinel tracked driving between 90 and 130 mph during a one-year period. The investigation revealed many regard speeding as an entitlement and are rarely pulled over or ticketed like other motorists.

Lopez almost got a pass in October. Watts' supervisor, Sgt. Reynaldo Sanchez, told her to back off after she started pursuing Lopez.

"I didn't know if [he] was responding to a call,'' Sanchez explained in a statement.

He said he instructed Watts to just get the vehicle tag or ID number so a supervisor could take it "up the chain of command.''

"The next thing I know,'' Sanchez said, "she had him in the back of her patrol car in handcuffs.''

Sanchez, who was not at the scene, said he called Watts and told her: "If he's in uniform, you are to remove those handcuffs off that man right now.''

Watts said in her statement she could have arrested Lopez for reckless driving, but another supervisor told her to instead issue him a citation with a notice to appear in court.

As she escorted Lopez back to his patrol car, he asked to speak to her.

"He kept saying, 'Well, what about professional courtesy?' '' Watts recalled. "I'm like, 'This is not a case of professional courtesy.' ''