By Patrick Wilson
SUFFOLK, Va. — Agnes Cox stopped on Jan. 24 for a man she assumed was a Suffolk police officer.
The man in the unmarked, red Chevy Impala asked for her driver's license and told her she had been swerving. He was courteous, but he also pointed out that she wasn't wearing a seat belt and asked who owned the car. When he returned with her license that afternoon, he didn't give her a ticket. Instead, he told Cox she was free to leave.
It turns out the man was not a police officer, but a Portsmouth fire marshal inspector.
The incident bothered Suffolk police, who said they felt that Ricky McCleod did not have the authority to make a traffic stop. Their concerns resulted in an investigation over whether McCleod should be charged with impersonating an officer.
Now Commonwealth's Attorney Phil Ferguson has ruled that McCleod did nothing wrong. In fact, the fire marshal exercised his legal right as a citizen to arrest someone for reckless driving, Ferguson said. Ferguson cited a 2003 Virginia Supreme Court ruling in Hudson v. Commonwealth, in which an off-duty officer outside his jurisdiction made a traffic stop. The Supreme Court ruled that the officer had the right to make a citizen's arrest for reckless driving.
"If he had been an ordinary citizen, he could have done the same thing," Ferguson said about McCleod.
"He had a vehicle that allowed him to stop the vehicle more easily," he said. "If the fire marshal had actually arrested the woman, he would have been authorized to do so."
McCleod did not return a voicemail left at his home. Portsmouth Fire Chief Don Horton declined to comment. A Portsmouth spokesman would say only that McCleod's current job title with the city is firefighter. City records show he has worked for the city since 2005.
Cox, the driver, did not want to be interviewed.
However, the city of Suffolk released police reports about the incident in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
They show that Suffolk Detective William Shockley was on his way home that day when he saw an unmarked vehicle with blue lights cross a bridge on East Pinner Street near Central Avenue. Shockley knew it wasn't a Suffolk police car and radioed dispatch to ask whether other agencies were responding to an emergency.
McCleod told Shockley and Detective Sgt. Alfred Chandler that he saw Cox's car swerve into traffic, nearly hitting two vehicles. He also said he pulled her over to make sure she wasn't intoxicated. His son was in the passenger seat of the Impala, police noted.
Chandler told McCleod that making a traffic stop without a firearm was potentially dangerous.
Fire marshals complete law enforcement training that gives them police power. But Suffolk police confirmed that McCleod had not had that training, the documents show.
After the incident, police sent Ferguson a report stating that McCleod "acted outside his abilities as a fire marshal inspector" and "does not have the authority to operate a vehicle equipped with blue lights." McCleod did not call 911 or police after he made the traffic stop, records show.
Police also noted that Cox told them that after she got home, she grew suspicious of McCleod because she realized she never saw a badge.
You "read it in the paper and see it on TV," she told police. "A lot of people do that. Try to make out like they're a cop."
In a letter to the police chief, Ferguson suggested that police consider charging Cox with driving offenses.
So far, police have declined Ferguson's suggestion.
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