Calif. police accused of cover-up
By Sean Webby
The San Jose Mercury News
SAN JOSE, Calif. — The confession came as the teenage girl lay side by side in the ambulance with the woman who had just hurt her. The woman admitted to the medical technician and the paramedic that she was fresh out of rehab and had been drinking - a lot.
In fact, the girl heard her say, she couldn't recall the still-smoking accident in which she lost control of her Cadillac Escalade and smashed head-on into two cars, including the teenager's. She couldn't even recall what year it was.
Mercury News interviews with the girl and an additional eyewitness offer some of the clearest indications to date that the March 25 collision was caused by drunken driving - and that police who investigated the incident should have been suspicious. And yet those police officers took no steps to question driver Sandra Woodall, a former San Jose cop, about possible intoxication and did not conduct a field sobriety or blood test.
The Mercury News also asked three attorneys with long experience in DUI cases to review the files from an attorney general's investigation of the incident. Two of those attorneys agreed there should have been questions from the beginning about whether the crash had been fueled by booze. They suggested that the police officers' conduct showed those officers didn't want to know the answer.
"It's absolutely a coverup. It's black-and-white," said Lawrence Taylor, a Southern California-based defense lawyer and a well-known national expert on DUI law. "This one is about as egregious as it gets."
No blood alcohol test
Among the most powerful evidence: After the ambulance reached the hospital, an officer reportedly told the mother of the teenager that it was too late for an accurate blood alcohol test on Woodall. Such a statement, the attorneys said, would have been patently false.
But Harry Stern, a prominent East Bay lawyer who often represents police officers, said he saw no evidence of a coverup. "There is absolutely no proof that this was anything other than officers responding to someone that they knew and trying to be courteous," said Stern, a former Berkeley police officer.
After questions arose about the initial accident investigation, the California Attorney General's Office was brought in by the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office to review the case because Woodall now works as a district attorney's investigator, creating a conflict of interest. The attorney general's office eventually charged Woodall with felony drunken driving. She has pleaded not guilty. The San Jose Police Department has placed on leave two officers - supervising Sgt. Will Manion and officer Patrick D'Arrigo - and is investigating their actions as a possible crime.
Protecting their own?
A month after the Woodall incident first became public, many are looking upon it as a dark example of how law enforcement officers protect their own. But the San Jose mother of the injured teenager said it took nearly a month after the crash for her to suspect potentially nefarious reasons behind the odd behavior she witnessed that night.
"I think officers made a stupid mistake that night," said the woman, who requested anonymity. "They all worked to cover it up."
At the hospital the night of the crash, an officer - later identified as D'Arrigo - asked for insurance information as their daughter was being given a CAT scan, the woman said.
So what happened, the mother recalled asking him.
D'Arrigo told her two theories, both of which he said he got from witnesses: The driver of the Escalade miscalculated a turn - or someone may have cut her off.
The mother said to the officer: You know she was drinking, don't you?
D'Arrigo looked surprised, the woman said. No, he told her.
He said he would interview her daughter about it.
Can't you check her blood?
The officer explained that it was too late. A blood test this long after the crash wouldn't be accurate.
The woman estimated to the Mercury News that the exchange took place about an hour and 45 minutes after the collision.
The DUI experts, who make their livings trying to rebut evidence against clients who are charged with drunken driving, said that two hours, even three, are well within the legal norm for testing a suspected drunken driver's blood.
"Nobody in the world is treated like (Woodall) was treated," said Palo Alto-based attorney Dan Barton, who has handled close to 1,000 DUI cases and is a certified California DUI specialist. "I thought we were past the time when law enforcement felt they had the impunity to protect their own on these kind of cases.
"What's so surprising here is that the SJPD so unabashedly cut corners to protect this woman. They are lying."
Barton and Taylor, who were interviewed separately, both said there were myriad indications that police did not handle the Woodall investigation objectively.
Common crash cause
• A serious accident with injuries is virtually always considered as a potential DUI case, because intoxication is such a common cause of accidents. A driver can be successfully prosecuted even with a low confirmed blood alcohol level. Yet the investigating officers apparently took no steps to explore that possibility.
• Given that medical workers said they smelled alcohol on Woodall's breath and saw clear signs of intoxication, it is difficult to believe the police did not. An odor of alcohol is one of the clearest signs of intoxication and a trained officer would rarely miss it. Even if the officers didn't smell booze, why wouldn't they have suspected Woodall might have been driving under the influence of drugs - such as cocaine or the sleep aid Ambien - and had blood taken to confirm or discount it?
• Woodall was not given a field sobriety test or a PAS test (a Breathalyzer test), even though these tests are given at virtually every suspicious accident with injuries, the experts said.
Medical workers' claims
• In several places where there are contradictions between the recollections of the medical workers and those of the police, the medical workers should be considered more credible, the experts said. For instance, a paramedic reported telling Manion that Woodall was intoxicated. The sergeant later denied he knew of any evidence of Woodall's intoxication until an officer told him hours later that a witness overheard Woodall saying she was drinking.
This paramedic is a strong witness, Barton said. He seems untainted by any bias and has no apparent reason to lie.
Taylor, whose book "Drunk Driving Defense" is now in its sixth edition, summed up the case this way: "Everything was done wrong. This wasn't a DUI investigation - not even slightly - and everything here was screaming for one. Even the victims and the EMTs recognized that. And you can bet your boots that Sgt. Manion and the other officers recognized that."
But Stern said he did not see clear evidence in the file that Woodall was drunk. He said she may have been suffering from shock or a head injury. Though witnesses said Woodall talked about drinking, Stern said her statements do not clearly refer to that night.
Further, Stern said, the files indicate that medical personnel were arguing with the police at the scene, and the tension may have skewed their perspectives. Police may have simply had a honest disagreement with the medical professionals about the best way to proceed.
Stern said police generally do not have a double standard when it comes to their own. "Officers are much more likely to take a hard line with either people who are well-known or other officers," he said. "It's exactly because of this sort of criticism that they are so careful."
Copyright 2008 The San Jose Mercury News