One of the men seen taking a stack of Spinnaker newspapers in surveillance video is a State Trooper, The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles confirmed on Friday.
Surveillance video obtained from University of North Florida Police shows two men taking the stack of papers from a Spinnaker rack in the Osprey Fountains dormitory June 13.
The video shows the two men removing the papers and walking around the building to a burgundy Nissan Juke parked in front of the building. They placed the papers into the back of the vehicle and left.
Detectives spotted a vehicle matching the one from surveillance video on July 5 while routinely driving around campus. According to an email from Deputy Chief Mark Richardson, detectives ran the tag and found that the owner of the vehicle looked similar to one of the men in the video.
UPD later identified the man as a current member of the Florida Highway Patrol, and contacted FHP.
Leslie Palmer, Director of Communications for the DHSMV, said “[UPD] contacted us just to say that there had been this incident, and that they had determined that it was an FHP member who was on this surveillance video, and we corroborated that he was.”
The member was identified as Steven Coppola, a UNF graduate and member of Northeast Florida’s Highway Patrol Troop G.
Coppola left a message for the Spinnaker providing details on why he took the papers. Coppola said that after receiving a phone call from a friend who read Spinnaker’s June 12 issue, he was concerned about the Police Beat section.
A friend of Coppola’s, 25 year-old Joshua Hott, was reported on in the June issue’s Police Beat.
Hott was arrested outside of the Lazzara Performing Arts Center May 30 and charged with video voyeurism.
The police report said a suspect was seen taking video of an 18 year-old male as he was using the restroom. The victim noticed and chased the suspect outside where he tackled him to the ground. The victim’s parents held the suspect there until police arrived.
Coppola said he was concerned about how the coverage might affect Hott’s younger brother, who is currently a UNF student. Coppola and a friend decided to take the papers to prevent the story from getting out— a decision Coppola said he regrets.
Coppola did not reveal the identity of the other person seen in the surveillance video. In Coppola’s message to the Spinnaker, he said he would be contacting editor-in-chief Jacob Harn to make things right.
Spinnaker Media called back and confirmed the authenticity of the message, however Coppola said he could not comment further, to a reporter, without speaking further with FHP.
In an interview with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the agency that oversees the Florida Highway Patrol, Palmer made it clear that Coppola was off duty when he took the papers.
Palmer said that criteria for an internal investigation would have been a policy violation, or a crime.
According to FHP’s website, every officer repeats the code of ethics when they are sworn in. One line reads “I recognize the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith, and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of the police service.”
Furthermore, in the oath of office, troopers swear to “… support, protect and defend the constitution and government of the United States and of the State of Florida.”
Harn is deciding what to do next.
Among his options would be a federal level civil rights lawsuit.
“We don’t think that justice has been served in this case, and whether it was 20, 100, or 2,600 papers that were taken, it’s still a form of censorship,” Harn said.
According to the Student Press Law Center, a 1994 federal district court jury in San Francisco ruled that a former police chief and two officers violated a publisher’s First Amendment rights by seizing approximately 2,000 copies of the free publication.
The Spinnakers taken from the Fountains were among nearly 3,000 that went missing campus wide June 13.
Harn said that the papers had an estimated total value of $4,600 which includes advertisements and printing costs, as well as over 150 paid and volunteer hours from students working for Spinnaker.
There have been 13 newspaper thefts in Florida alone since the year 2000, according to the SPLC.
Harn said, “I see that our right to free speech— as outlined in the Constitution, the First Amendment— I see that that’s not safe either.”
According to Palmer, Coppola was not the subject of an internal investigation. Additional calls to State and Local FHP offices regarding any other formal action against Coppola were not returned.