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Tuesday, June 25, 2013
One of the more eyebrow-raising stories in last week’s paper came on Tuesday. It was about the outcome of a common DUI charge. The defendant, Dublin town attorney and former state Del. Thomas Baker, was arrested in March in Pulaski County.
What happened in court was rather uncommon. Baker avoided a DUI conviction, which is unusual though not unheard of. It appears he did that by refusing a blood-alcohol test.
The result was a plea bargain. Baker was found guilty of reckless driving, fined $500 and ordered to complete a course with the Virginia Alcohol Safety program.
This is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, someone who drinks too much and drives might regard Baker’s actions as a useful primer on what to do and what not to do if pulled over by a cop after drinking.
That’s because DUI convictions are no trifling matter. There’s a decent chance a first conviction will land you in jail for five or more days, depending on how drunk you are. You’re almost certain to end up with a six-month restricted license that allows you to drive only to work and back.
Besides a hefty fine and fees for a lawyer, you’ll likely have to lease a mandatory ignition interlock device for six months (about $500 plus installation), and your insurance company is going to jack up your rates for years.
When you refuse to take a blood-alcohol test, which Baker did, you deny the state evidence that could be very useful in convicting you. It might help you beat a DUI conviction, but there’s a big fat catch: Refusing the test is a separate civil infraction.
A first-time conviction on that will cost you your license for one year, and there’s no leeway. You get no restricted license to drive to work. For a lot of people that’s even worse.
Now let’s consider the circumstances of Baker’s arrest and plea bargain:
According police, a Pulaski sheriff’s deputy pulled over Baker’s car at 8 in the morning on March 20 after he saw it weaving left and right on U.S. 11, onto both the right shoulder and into the oncoming lane.
Baker’s car stank like alcohol and so did Baker after he got out of the car, police reported. Baker, 56, was unable to complete some roadside sobriety tests. (His lawyer, David Warburton, told me that’s because Baker has arthritis in his knees.)
At the station, Baker refused to take a blood-alcohol test but was otherwise cooperative. Baker was charged with DUI and refusing to take a blood-alcohol test. He was held in jail for a little more than 16 hours.
The local commonwealth’s attorney recused himself from the case, and Robert Deatherage, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney from Franklin County, was appointed as prosecutor.
Deatherage agreed to drop the charges of DUI and refusing the test in favor of reckless driving. He told my colleague, reporter Melissa Powell, that it was because Baker was cooperative and because he had an unblemished driving record and no criminal record.
Dropping both of those charges is the oddest thing about this case. Because like it or not, the law is designed so that a person charged with drunken driven gets nailed with either a DUI conviction or a one-year license suspension.
Baker, a state delegate from 1990 to 1999, got neither, which seems like a great deal. Reader Michael Hudson of Roanoke, who called me last week unhappy with the outcome, sure thinks so.
“The next person who refuses to take the test — are they going to get treated the same way?” Hudson asked.
The answer: probably not — in the Roanoke Valley, anyway.
In Roanoke, “we do not enter into agreements pleading down DUIs into reckless driving,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Donald Caldwell. And if a defendant has refused a blood-alcohol test, “we go forward on the refusal charge unless the person pleads to DUI.”
Under most circumstances, the same thing happens in Roanoke County, said Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Leach. “We use [the refusal charge] as a club and say, ‘you plead guilty to DUI.’ ” Otherwise, “he’s going to be walking for a year.”
Left hanging is this question: Did Baker, a former co-chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee, get special treatment?
Warburton said he doubts it — Baker has been out of the legislature since 1999, he noted. Ultimately, he said, that’s a question for the prosecutor.
Deatherage, along with Baker, did not return my calls.
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