Cagey Stapleton dogged by lingering DUI questions

The incomplete records from candidate for treasurer Walker Stapleton’s 1999 DUI arrest have raised questions the week before Election Day that Stapleton has only partly addressed. As more details of the case emerge, Stapleton’s fudging and partial responses play into assertions made by Democratic incumbent Cary Kennedy that voters are right to question her opponent’s commitment to transparency in a race that will decide who will manage billions in tax payer cash in the coming four years.

The 15 page court records (pdf) dug up and released by progressive activist organization Campaign for a Strong Colorado last week, make plain that Stapleton was driving under the influence of alcohol and perhaps drugs at 2:30 a.m., June 20, 1999, in San Francisco. He was arrested and accused of failing to yield at an intersection and injuring two people.

One of the victims, Ginger Vasquez, told the Colorado Independent that she was a passenger in a taxi at the intersection, that Stapleton smashed into the taxi and sent it into a 360 degree spin. She also said he drove down the street after the collision, that he never approached the taxi to see if she or the driver were all right and that, when Stapleton made what looked like a move to flee, his car was boxed in by two taxis at the scene. One taxi, she said, stopped in front of Stapleton’s car and the other behind it.

The wobbler

According to the available court documents, Stapleton was booked by police on suspicion of a felony DUI that caused injury. The crime the police suspected Stapleton of committing is a “wobbler” that, depending on circumstances, can be charged as a felony or as a misdemeanor.  The police set Stapleton’s bail that night at $25,000, a level that indicated the felony-level transgression they believed led to the accident.

The District Attorney two days later, however, charged Stapleton with two misdemeanor counts of “DUI with injury,” or California’s Vehicle Code section 23153 (a) and 23153 (b) — the second count for operating a vehicle with a .08 percent or greater blood alcohol level. The DA a month later added a hit-and-run charge for attempted fleeing the scene and failing to give assistance to the victims.

Stapleton court doc with original DUI language;
click to enlarge

The language of the first two counts leveled by the DA is notable. It accuses Stapleton of driving “willfully and unlawfully while under the influence of an alcoholic beverage and a drug and under their combined influence.”

The standard statutory language is not so specific in its reference to the driver’s being under the influence of “a drug” and under the “combined influence” of alcohol and a drug. The statutory language, unamended in the years since the accident reads: “It is unlawful for any person, while under the influence of any alcoholic beverage or drug, or under the combined influence of any alcoholic beverage and drug, to drive a vehicle…”

Records indicate that when Stapleton’s case came before Judge Tomar Mason on Sept. 9, 1999, Stapleton pleaded to and was found guilty of that original charge — that is, to the original language crafted by the D.A. that included the specific allegations of driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. 

That’s no small thing, according to Amy Flynn, assistant professor of legal writing who teaches criminal practice at the University of San Francisco Law School and a former Contra Costa County, Calif., public defender.

“[Stapleton’s] lawyer would have made sure [Stapleton] knew what he was being accused of, including any allegations of drug use. That information is critical in mounting a defense.”

As part of the plea negotiations conducted in court that day, however, the three counts against Stapleton seem to have been dismissed. Stapleton pleaded instead to a new, fourth count, a lesser DUI charge introduced orally that likely didn’t include the specific drug language written by the DA nor language that asserted anyone was injured in the accident. Stapleton did, however, plead to DUI 23152(a), or Driving Under the Influence of Drugs/Alcohol, the statute defendants in California suspected of driving under the influence of drugs, or DUID, are accused of violating.

Lawyers and cash

One thing clear from the record is that Stapleton, a member of the wealthy and politically powerful Bush-Stapleton family, made use of the resources available to him to make the best of a bad situation.

He plunked down $25,000 bail to get out of jail. He paid for at least one of the victims to receive massage therapy in the wake of the accident and he seems to have paid for a top-notch attorney. The felony hit-and-run charge that stemmed from Stapleton’s apparent attempted fleeing the accident was dropped. So were the other two counts he faced, including the charge he pleaded guilty to that specifically mentioned drugs and injury.  Stapleton’s driver’s license was not suspended or revoked.

It seems clear Stapleton’s lawyer offered concessions in order to win the chance for Stapleton to cop to the lesser, victimless DUI charge. The records suggest those concessions may have included Stapleton’s accepting a harsher sentence than the maximum sentence usually allowed on the lesser DUI charge; his paying into a restitution fund; and his attending Alcoholics Anonymous addiction counseling twice a week for six months.

The maximum sentence for the DUI conviction Stapleton copped to is six months. Stapleton agreed to a year-long sentence. As the Colorado Independent reported Tuesday, that sentence was suspended with the provision that Stapleton attend the AA meetings and work for 20 days for the sheriff’s office under the SWAP or Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program, which is “alternative” only to jail. Had he violated any of the terms of the plea agreement, a judge could have immediately placed him behind bars.

Compare that to the typical consequences of a DUI charge like the one Stapleton eventually pleaded to. Such charges typically carry two-day jail sentences, court probation, suspended licenses and standard DUI classes on addiction.

According to Flynn, at the very least, the deal suggests Stapleton was in no shape to drive.

“AA meetings in addition to DUI classes would normally indicate a high blood-alcohol content,” she said. 

Vasquez, the passenger in the taxi hit by Stapleton, said she was not seriously injured and that Stapleton paid for her massages. Details on the experience of the other victim listed in the court records, Christie Gregory, have been more difficult to find. The San Francisco Police Department told the Denver Post she was not a pedestrian.

Yet Stapleton was ordered to pay restitution to both Gregory and Vasquez. He did not respond to messages left by the Colorado Independent for this story. He has not said how Gregory was injured, whether he paid for any medical treatment she may have received or whether she was a driver or a passenger in another vehicle involved in the accident, including his own. 

Records to come

The Colorado Independent has requested additional public records from the plea and sentencing discussions that may answer some of the questions growing out of the case.

Stapleton told the Denver Post that he has requested the full police report from the night of the accident. Only Stapleton and the two victims may request that document. The police report will offer information about how the police assessed Stapleton’s condition, who was injured and how they were injured.

Stapleton has said he wasn’t attempting to flee the scene, that he was only attempting to move out of the way of traffic. The police report will also detail why some of the parties involved believed he was attempting to flee the scene instead of offering assistance to the victims.

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