Drunk driving: In Ohio city, $1,000 covers it

By Randy Ludlow
The Columbus Dispatch

WAVERLY, Ohio For drunken-driving suspects facing three or more days in jail and lengthy license suspensions or restrictions, it's a great deal.

Nearly 100 of them have made $1,000 "donations" to the Waverly Police Department to make their troubles go away.

No DUI conviction. No jail time. No driver's license suspension or restrictions. Just a simple guilty plea to a lesser charge.

The donations allowed drivers, including those who refused blood-alcohol tests and some with four or five previous DUI convictions, to sidestep typical penalties.

Most also were quickly back on the road when DUI charges were dismissed and automatic license suspensions were set aside in Pike County Court.

Mayor's Court convictions on a lesser charge never led to jail time and rarely led to loss of a license, although magistrates can impose one-year suspensions and six-month jail terms.

The convictions also do not come back to haunt drivers' records. The charges apparently are not reported to the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, in potential violation of state law.

Bargaining away DUI charges for donations has raised at least $91,000 for the "drug law fund" since 2001 to buy police pistols, radio equipment and the force's police dog.

State auditors are looking into the practice.

Officials in Waverly said the donations are voluntary, but one conceded that if you don't have the money, you don't get the deal.

"It's accurate that if the city doesn't get the money, the case doesn't get reduced just like any other plea bargain," said Anthony Moraleja, a former Mayor's Court magistrate.

"That's just one of the facets. ... There's several reasons why a case may be reduced," said Moraleja, now an assistant Pike County prosecutor.

Marie Hoover, Waverly's law director and prosecutor, said no defendants were strong-armed into making donations and that no plea bargains depended on such donations.

The city can distribute fines as it sees fit, so the donations were simply a way of earmarking the cash for the police department, said Hoover, Moraleja's sister.

Amid the latest concerns, Hoover said, she has stopped the practice in the town of 4,430 people about 60 miles south of Columbus.

Mayor Dale Reed said The Dispatch's findings "raise a red flag." He said he will question Police Chief Larry Roe. "I don't agree with it personally," Reed said. "My feeling is if they are guilty, they are guilty."

Roe, who appears on some court records as directing donations to his department, did not return telephone calls. Mayor's Court magistrate Ruth Buckler didn't, either.

Records show at least two dozen motorists with previous DUI convictions including three with four and one with five have escaped another by donating to the police.

Twelve suspects who received deals tested at at least twice the 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level at which a person is considered intoxicated in Ohio. Four tested at 0.22 percent or higher.

Waverly's handling of DUI cases underscores a point emphasized by critics of mayor's courts, including Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer.

While not addressing Waverly, Moyer said mayor's courts have built-in financial conflicts that can compromise justice. "The perception is that some mayor's courts are being used to fund the villages and cities," he said.

Conviction of a first-time offender on a city-filed DUI charge in Pike County Court typically generates $200 in fine income for Waverly.

Dismissal of a DUI charge, followed by a Mayor's Court conviction for physically controlling a motor vehicle while intoxicated, brings in $1,000. The latter charge allows police to arrest tipsy people who are sitting in their cars but not driving.

The state auditor's office flagged the practice as creating the "appearance of impropriety" in 2003. Waverly officials said it would cease. It didn't.

It accelerated dramatically last year, when more than a third (26 of 73) of the drunken-driving cases filed by Waverly police in Pike County Court were dismissed.

The cases were reborn as physical-control charges in Mayor's Court, where Waverly officers directly filed 21 other physical-control cases.

The dismissal of county court cases in recent years was approved by the office of Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk and Judge Cassandra Bolt-Meredith.

Junk described the practice as typical plea bargaining, although he said he did not realize it was so widespread.

"We're going to be reviewing any requests that cases be run through Mayor's Court on a physical control very, very carefully," he said.

The prosecutor added that the state disciplinary counsel, who investigates complaints against lawyers, checked into the plea arrangements after state auditors complained in 2003 and found no violations.

Moraleja said most plea arrangements are initiated by arresting police officers and defendants' lawyers.

License suspensions, which carry a one-year penalty for those who refuse to take a breath test, were dismissed in county court to keep cases consolidated, he said.

"It reeks of an administrative nightmare if someone had a license suspension out of one court and a conviction in one court," he said.

License suspensions frequently were set aside on grounds that the arresting officer didn't tell the suspect of the consequences of refusing a breath test. However, records show both drivers and officers signed forms acknowledging the warning had been issued.

Lara Baker, chief prosecutor in the Columbus city attorney's office, said her lawyers typically do not enter plea bargains that eliminate license suspensions or driving restrictions.

"Our interest is in making sure they stay off the roadways," she said.

Brad Koffel, a leading DUI defense lawyer in Columbus, said plea bargaining is essential to ensure justice and help keep courts unclogged.

But, he said, the Waverly practice smacks of "pay to play" and "seems to be on the other side of the fence."

"I've never told a client, 'Cough up $1,000 and we're going to get rid of this.' I've never found a court where I can offer a maximum fine in exchange for a plea bargain," Koffel said.

Copyright 2007 The Columbus Dispatch

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