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McSting lacked franchise approval

U.S. 41 drive-through officer catches law-breaking customers

Fort Myers police recently manned a new battle station in their fight against crime: the drive-through window at McDonald’s.

Dressed as a McDonald’s employee, an undercover officer worked the drive-through window March 21 and April 25 and spotted enough wrongdoing inside customers’ cars to warrant six arrests and 29 citations.

But someone involved — it wasn’t really clear who on Friday — may end up with Egg McMuffin on his face because the owner of the restaurant at 3645 Cleveland Ave. was never told and neither was the fast-food chain’s corporate headquarters.

“We don’t get involved with those sort of things without consulting counsel,” franchise owner Samir Homsi said. “Somebody didn’t do the right steps. I’m upset, because I didn’t know anything and they didn’t ask me.”

Homsi said he won’t let police use his restaurant for surveillance again.

“We don’t allow anybody even behind the counter,” Homsi said. “Sometimes our assistants, they do crazy things and they think because police are involved everything is kosher.”

According to arrest reports, Officer Glen Eppler did the undercover work — peering into customers’ vehicles as they stopped at the window where money is exchanged.

When Eppler saw lawbreakers — from people smoking marijuana in plain view to those who hadn’t strapped their children into safety seats — he would radio officers in patrol units McSTING: Restaurant owner, corporate office were not aware of the police effort

down the street and have the cars pulled over.

According to police, the operation netted a “significant amount of drugs” and two pistols.

Fort Myers Police Chief Hilton Daniels released a statement Friday saying he was “pleased with the outcome of these investigations” and wanted to thank McDonald’s for “helping us work to fight crime.”

But that was before it was learned that neither Homsi nor headquarters had been notified.

Fort Myers Police spokeswoman Kara Winton said the officers involved were led to believe everyone knew what was going on.

She said police got the idea for the sting after the restaurant’s employees and managers told police about seeing criminal activity in the drive-through lane.

“They expressed frustration that they often saw people coming through the drive-through actively smoking drugs or with drugs and guns beside them, and they felt like they couldn’t do anything about it,” Winton said. “It also bothered them when they saw kids not in their seat belts.”

Winton said police discussed the operation with a female general manager.

“The officer told her she needed to get a hold of upper management and corporate before they proceeded and she called back and said we had the green light and McDonald’s had approved it,” Winton said.

The female, Winton said, left the restaurant before the operation began and a male manager took over.

“They were so happy through all of this,” Winton said. “They were completely supportive of this. ... We regret the appropriate sources didn’t get notified, but we were under the impression that they did.”

Two men who appeared to be managers told a reporter Friday the sting was not the restaurant’s idea. Both refused to give their names.

Sheila Young, a communications worker at McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., declined to discuss the matter.

“This is not something we would be commenting on or should be commenting on because it is a police matter,” Young said.

Question of legality

The News-Press learned of the operation through an anonymous tipster, who said the sting seemed to be an invasion of customers’ privacy.

Several local attorneys said they saw nothing illegal about the sting, but didn’t like the sound of it.

“I don’t like what you’re describing,” said attorney Bruce Tischler of Cape Coral, who has expertise in civil rights cases. “You just feel like you’re being violated. You’re going in for your Big Mac and you’ve got an officer looking into your car. It’s like going to Disney World and finding out all the Mickey characters are undercover narcotics officers.”

“People are going to say, ‘I came here for a Big Mac, not Big Brother,’” said defense attorney Aaron O’Brien of Fort Myers, who was a 2002 Libertarian Party candidate for state representative. “The lawyer in me says they have a right to stand there and do that. The Libertarian in me says hold it. People could just stop going there if they’re going to be subjected to that kind of scrutiny.”

Chief Assistant State Attorney Randall B. McGruther said he could see no trouble with the sting as far as prosecuting those who were arrested.

“I don’t see offhand any particular problem there,” McGruther said. “They are in a place where they have a right to be and there’s really no difference in them being in a McDonald’s work outfit instead of civilian clothes. There is no expectation of privacy at a McDonald’s drive-through window.”

Several people who have eaten at the franchise had mixed opinions Friday.

“I go there every morning for breakfast,” Christina Gonzalez, 24, of Fort Myers said. “I think it’s ridiculous. McDonald’s, of all places, an undercover McDonald’s worker.”

Justin Bala, 17, of Fort Myers said he eats there all the time, too.

“I totally agree with it,” Bala said. “I’ve got a lot of cops in my family. I believe in the law. There is nothing wrong with looking into people’s cars.”

Bekki Shanklin, 53, of Fort Myers works nearby and has eaten at the restaurant.

“There are a lot of people doing a lot of bad things, stupid things that possibly harm others,” Shanklin said. “I think it’s awfully Big Brotherish, but there’s an awful lot of things that need to be Big Brothered upon.”

— The News-Press columnist Sam Cook contributed to this report.

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