DWI ruling neither political nor prudent

by Jim Longworth

Back in August, a really good guy did a really bad thing. Todd Poole, chief of staff to US Rep. Virginia Foxx, got behind the wheel of his car and drove drunk. The trial for this high-profile case was delayed twice, then, last month, Judge Gregory Horne found Poole guilty of driving while impaired and resisting arrest. It all sounded pretty straightforward until sentencing was handed down.

Poole was given one year probation, and made to pay about $500 in fines and fees. He was also ordered to do 24 hours of community service, and complete a substance abuse “assessment.” But he still gets to drive his car with limited privileges, he doesn’t have to go to rehab, and there was no interlock device installed in his vehicle to prevent him from driving drunk again.

The reason for such a light sentence?

Poole’s blood test never reached the courtroom because supposedly there was a backlog at the SBI lab. That means the judge could not consider Poole’s blood alcohol content, or BAC, which, if it exceeded .08, would have made him legally intoxicated, and certainly a candidate for an interlock device.

Backlogs in a lab are nothing new, but it was irresponsible for the judicial system to allow a DWI case to go forward without the key piece of evidence. After all, the trial had already been delayed twice, so waiting a little longer for the BAC results doesn’t seem unreasonable, unless of course the gathering of the blood or the arrest itself, was flawed.

And that brings me to what happened after sentencing.

Poole’s attorney demanded that the results of the blood test never be revealed to any state agency, and Judge Horne complied, saying it would be unfair to Poole for the DMV to impose further conditions on his limited driving privileges. Suddenly, a routine DWI case smacked of political favoritism, with some in the local media wondering if an ordinary citizen would have received the same consideration as a Congressional chief of staff. The legal nuances of this case were way above my pay grade, so I consulted with a noted defense attorney, and a sitting judge.

Backlogs in a lab are nothing new, but it was irresponsible for the judicial system to allow a DWI case to go forward without the key piece of evidence

Clarke Dummit, founder of the Dummit Law Firm, told me that rulings such as the one handed down by Judge Horne are not unusual. “There are many cases in which the blood results are suppressed from use by any agency when the authorities have not followed the rules,” he said. “DWI cases are filled with constitutional challenges to the chain of custody of blood evidence.”

I also interviewed a sitting judge who spoke on condition of anonymity. The judge advised that we can only speculate as to what happened in the Poole case, but that it is not uncommon to seal records in order to protect a defendant where chain of custody might have been compromised, or where Miranda rights might have been administered improperly.

I then asked my source if the Poole ruling could have been politically motivated. The judge said it was not, because the act of sealing records “has its own statutory requirements” which would preclude any sort of blatant favoritism.

Clearly then, the ruling by Judge Horne was not political, but it also wasn’t exactly prudent. First of all, such suppressions of evidence make everyone look bad. But more importantly, the ruling, no matter how legally sound, sends the wrong message about one of our nation’s most serious problems.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, drunk drivers get behind the wheel 112 million times per year, and, every day, 30 people in the United States die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol impaired driver. That translates to one death every 48 minutes.

By driving impaired, my friend Todd could have killed himself or others. He didn’t. He was lucky. He’s still alive, and I’m glad. Now he should use his good fortune to lobby Ms. Foxx to embrace CDC’s call for a law that would reduce the legal limit for driving drunk to a BAC of .05 percent. He should also support Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s push to make interlock devices mandatory for anyone convicted of DWI, not just for certain repeat offenders.

In just a few days, thousands of North Carolinians will be partying and drinking to celebrate the New Year. I only hope that inconsistent enforcement of ambivalent laws will not give motorists a license to drink and drive.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).