SANFORD – A Sanford police lieutenant's son who was captured on video, sucker-punching a homeless man outside a bar, knocking him out, on Monday pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was placed on a year of probation.
Justin Collison, 22, of Sanford, had been charged with felony battery and disorderly conduct, but his family paid an undisclosed sum to the homeless man, Sherman Ware, and Ware asked prosecutors to drop the case.
They didn't. When court started Monday morning, Assistant State Attorney Russ Bausch insisted that Collison spend 30 days in jail in addition to a year on probation. Collison said no.
The two sides left that to Circuit Judge Debra Nelson, who came up with her own solution: She sentenced him to 30 days in jail then suspended that, saying he'd only be locked up if he fails to follow through on the conditions of probation.
So Collison pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery, was placed on a year of probation and ordered to get anger management counseling, undergo a substance abuse evaluation and get treatment, if required.
Collison said little at the hearing but turned beet red when prosecutors played the video in open court. His mother, sitting in the back row, kept her eyes down.
The case caused a sensation because Collison wasn't arrested that night. Instead, Sanford officers sat him in the back of a patrol car, watched the video, then allowed him to go home.
Collison is the son of Sanford police Lt. Chris Collison. He was not at the scene that night, but his son phoned him, and Lt. Collison then called Sgt. Anthony Raimondo, who was there.
Patrol officers had decided to arrest Collison, but Raimondo said no.
The NAACP complained that Collison, who's white, was given preferential treatment. Police had probable cause to arrest him that night but elected not to, the group complained.
He was not arrested until seven weeks later, when he quickly posted bail and was released.
A musician in the bar that night captured the punch on camera and posted the video on YouTube.
"It did go viral," said Bausch.
The video prompted a public outcry, and Sanford pressured its retiring police chief, Brian Tooley, to leave office early.
The Seminole County Sheriff's Office conducted an investigation into how Sanford officers handled the case. It cleared everyone at the scene that night but concluded that then-Capt. Jerry Hargrett, who was acting police chief at the time, appeared to have violated the law when he disclosed that an internal affairs investigation was underway.
Hargrett has since retired.
Defense attorney Rick Jancha said there were no excuses for Collison's behavior but said his client had been knocked out moments earlier inside the bar, where there had been a brawl that then spilled into the street.
Bausch said yes, someone inside the bar may have hit Collison, but the man throwing the punch would have been white, according to Collison's written statement.
Ware is black.
Shortly after the incident, Ware sued Collison. The defendant's family quickly and quietly settled. Jancha would not say how much money they paid.
Collison has been in trouble with the law before but never convicted.
He was arrested four years ago, accused, along with another man, of shooting a motorist in the chest after a beer bash at his grandfather's ranch in Volusia County. Prosecutors dropped that case, though, after they failed to determine which of the two pulled the trigger.
And at age 17, Collison was charged with beating and choking his girlfriend and damaging her home. Prosecutors dropped those charges after his family paid for repairs and the girl stopped cooperating.
Source: Orlando Sentinel