Why conducting VIP investigations and arrests takes courage

The stellar performances of officers investigating VIPs is often unheralded, washed out by the blinding light of the celebrity involved


Investigating people of power and prestige is a daunting task that is faced regularly by officers around the country. The stellar performances of these officers is often unheralded, washed out by the blinding light of the celebrity involved, be they a congressman, judge, movie star, or professional athlete. Although these are rarely deadly encounters, it takes a special kind of courage for a law enforcement officer to carry them through to completion.

A template for consideration could be not only how a local officer handled one such challenge, but also how the VIP, who was arrested, responded as well.

February 2004, Dodge County, Wisconsin

Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager reacts as she makes a statement to the media Thursday, Feb. 26, 2004, in Madison, Wis, about charges of operating a vehicle while intoxicated. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)
Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager reacts as she makes a statement to the media Thursday, Feb. 26, 2004, in Madison, Wis, about charges of operating a vehicle while intoxicated. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

In February 2004, Corporal Paul Nell of the Dodge County Sheriff’s Department received a call of a vehicle being driven erratically, travelling at a speed of 25 mph in a posted 65 mph zone. Shortly after the first transmission, dispatch reported the vehicle was now in a ditch. The driver was the Attorney General of the State of Wisconsin, Peg Lautenschlager.

Corporal Nell arrived on scene of the single vehicle crash and discovered that the driver was uninjured and appeared impaired. Corporal Nell immediately recognized the significance of this circumstance. He thought at the time he was probably best suited for this situation, since he was a Standard Field Sobriety Test Instructor, as well as a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE).

The Attorney General readily admitted she had the proverbial “couple of drinks” in Madison and was heading toward Fond Du Lac, when she fell asleep and ran off the road. Nell administered the standard field sobriety test battery, followed by a preliminary breath test, which revealed a blood alcohol content of .12. The DRE felt the impairment exhibited was so pronounced that there had to be “something else on board besides alcohol.” The AG confirmed his suspicion by revealing she had also taken the muscle relaxant Flexoral.

Like anyone else

Since Nell had already decided his best option was to treat the Attorney General like anyone else, he said that the charging decision was, “a no brainer.” He added, “I placed her under arrest, handcuffed her and searched her like I would have done with anyone else.”

Lautenschlager was cited for operating a motor vehicle while impaired. Nell read her the “informing the accused form” and offered her Dodge County’s primary test of blood. She refused. Thirty minutes later the Attorney General changed her mind and asked to take the test, but following the first offense refusal protocol Nell explained to her that the refusal would stand.

After the process was completed Nell arranged for Lautenschlager to be released from custody to a "responsible person,” according to protocol.

Before Corporal Nell completed his report, a media circus had erupted.

The Attorney General’s response

Attorney General Lautenschlager served as an example for how a VIP should act in such a circumstance. During the contact she never mentioned that she was Attorney General of the State of Wisconsin. She also never asked for, nor suggested that she should receive any special treatment.

The day after the event Attorney General Lautenschlager held a press conference and wrote a letter praising the actions of her arresting officer. Here is an excerpt from that letter:

I am sorry to tell you that I made a terrible mistake last night. While driving home, I fell asleep and drove off the road, and was subsequently cited for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. I wish to apologize to each and every one of you for the negative impact my actions might have on the Department and the public’s perception of this fine institution. I am extremely embarrassed about this and know that I have disappointed many people who have put their faith in me. I wish to thank the officers of the Dodge County Sheriff’s Department for their professionalism in handling this matter. I accept the consequences of and will take responsibility for my actions.

She pled guilty and paid her fine accepting all consequences of her “mistake.”

Corporal Nell observed, “A lot of good came out of the arrest. There was a lot of high profile coverage on the dangers of impaired driving, as well as the procedures that are followed.” The message was clearly sent that no one was above the law in Wisconsin. Corporal Nell experienced no repercussions as a result of this incident, only universal praise for his handling of a very difficult situation.

Lessons learned

When faced with a VIP investigation:

  1. Don’t panic. Remember, this is something you have done many times before.
  2. Treat the VIP like you would anyone else in the same circumstances.
  3. Keep the digital recorder going. It’s a powerful tool.
  4. Know the law and follow set guidelines and procedures.
  5. Base your decisions on the facts not the position, or personality.
  6. Write a good report. Remember many people will read this one.
  7. Remember your arrest was not the problem. The behavior prompting it was the problem.

Closing

Chief Deputy Scott Middlestadt of the Dodge County Sheriff’s Department shared his perspective on handling a potential lose-lose situation like a VIP investigation/arrest. “When you focus on the facts, do your job and enforce the law, the one thing you will never lose is your integrity.”

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