April 2010

Will politics trump justice?

By David Grant Long

Do as I say, not as I do.

This is the admonition parents occasionally finger-wag at their naughty children for minor transgressions of which they themselves have been guilty. (Son, we just didn’t know how harmful it was for teenagers to drink beer when I was a kid. And, damn it, don't cuss like that!)

It certainly is not a piece of fatherly advice a district attorney can convincingly convey to a defendant who is about to be sentenced for the exact same crime — drunk driving — that he himself has been charged with. In fact, the defendant might rightly expect a little leniency from a fellow traveller who's been there, done that. And you can bet whatever the sentence is, the defendant is going to be turned into a total cynic about our justice system.

Yet Jim Wilson, district attorney in the 22nd Judicial District, plans to blithely continue in his position until his second term has expired 2 1/2 years from now — presumably throwing the book at all the other alleged law-breakers who put the lives of the public in peril under similar circumstances.

Of all so-called misdemeanors, none is more deadly than driving under the influence. It accounts for hundreds of deaths annually in this state and injuries that run in the thousands, ruining lives and breaking hearts without regard to race, religion or occupation (such as officer of the court sworn to uphold our laws). It has been compared to holding a loaded gun out a car window and randomly firing toward oncoming traffic, figuring the odds are very slim that anyone will actually be struck. It is difficult to imagine more a irresponsible act or attitude.

And yet that’s the crime of which our DA has been accused.

Wilson got busted in February near Buena Vista when a Colorado state trooper allegedly saw his vehicle make an unsafe pass and pulled him over, then determined the suspect was intoxicated beyond the .080 DUI threshold. According to the Cortez Journal, it was a little after 10 a.m. and the cop allegedly discovered an open bottle of booze in the car, which is illegal as well. And speaking of guns, he also allegedly found a 9mm semi-automatic handgun in Mr. Wilson's possession, which, under Colorado law, is also illegal if the person is drunk.

So let's see, an unsafe pass in mountainous terrain (allegedly), a strong suspicion by the trooper that Wilson was drunk, a chemical test that allegedly confirmed this suspicion, an inventory of the vehicle that, allegedly, turned up a rapid-fire handgun and an opened jug of Old Shitface. I say allegedly, of course, because Mr. Wilson is legally considered innocent until these charges are proven in court (and because I don’t want to defame Mr. Wilson in the event the officer was mistaken, or just had nothing better to do than harass a sober, safe driver that morning, or that the case is dismissed through some technicality).

When queried about his future by Journal reporter Steve Grazier, Wilson seemed shaken yet defiant.

He hastened to assure the reading public that the incident was virgin territory for him, calling it “an anomaly.”

"It's scary — I’ve never been in this situation before," he added. “It’s just never, ever happened to me before.”

Personally, as a guy who has driven drunk several times in my distant past but never got caught, I’d like a little clarification: Is he saying he’s never, ever been arrested for DUI before, or is he saying that never, ever before in his 57 years on earth had a few too many and slipped behind the wheel, thinking it would be okay because he has better judgment and reactions than most after imbibing, or that he wasn't really going very far or he couldn't miss an important meeting? (If the answer is “Never, ever drove drunk,” then that's commendable, but I’d still need some convincing.)

Along with having my own checkered and shameful past in that regard, I have a particular interest in this offense because my current occupation involves sobering up drunk drivers and occasionally teaching classes intended to show people how not to become repeat offenders and just what the tragic consequences of drunk driving can be. According to the extensive data inflicted on my students, chances are a person will drive drunk 10 or more times before getting caught.

As far as we know, of course, Wilson has only been involved in this single incident, but it still resulted in charges that would cost many otherwise competent and wellmeaning officials their jobs.

Yet Wilson said the accusations do not warrant him resigning as chief law-enforcement officer of the 22nd Judicial District, or even stepping aside until the matter is resolved.

“There is nothing about (these) charges that would require me to step down as district attorney,” he told the Journal. “I intend to go ahead and finish my term out."

Well, he ought to know if there is any legal requirement for a district attorney not to have been convicted of drunk driving, but that is hardly the only — or most important — consideration.

The larger concern should be doing the honorable thing and falling on his professional sword by voluntarily stepping down, or at least temporarily aside. That would be an admirable nod to the concept of equal justice and raise his esteem greatly in the eyes of many local citizens.

And, yes, I realize the job of DA is often thankless. It involves hard work for pay that, while decent by local standards, is small compared to what a good attorney could make in private practice. The DA’s budget is never adequate to the needs of the office, and hiring and keeping wellqualified deputy DAs is always a challenge because of the modest salaries.

Still, this would seem to be the bottom line:

Even if Wilson’s assistants handle all DUI cases from here on out, it's still his office, after all, and the concept of blind justice will be tainted for the remainder of his term. Every plea bargain involving a DUI would raise questions. Did the defendant get off easy because, after all, the DA himself was accused of the same crime? Or, if the defendant wound up with stiff penalties, wouldn't that smack of blatant hypocrisy?

Of course, as noted earlier, it is possible that these charges against Wilson are patently false and that he was the victim of some enormous miscarriage of justice. But even in that circumstance, he would be put in an uncomfortable position, since he would find himself arguing against the law enforcement system that he is normally required to support and defend.

There is one other wretched consideration in all this — the politics of elected office.

Wilson, a Republican, had the immediate, backing of the Montezuma County GOP Central Committee.

Chairwoman Pat Rule told Grazier, “We still support him as our DA, and see this more as a personal thing than a political thing.” But then the chairwoman seemed to over-Rule herself, noting that if Wilson resigned, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, would get to name his successor.

What a horrible thought: The possible appointment of a Democrat to a job that is totally apolitical in nature anyway.

Much better, I guess, to have a heavy cloud hanging over the local “justice department” for the next couple of years.

David Grant Long writes from Cortez, Colo.