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Friday, January 22, 2010

Cops Admit Protecting Their Own From DWI

Cops admit protecting their own from DWI
The Journal News by Richard Liebson and Shawn Cohen - January 17, 2010 (

A driver speeding through Tarrytown rolled over and struck a fence and guardrail. Another was accused of running a red light before smashing into a Scarsdale police car. A third hit a Greenburgh ambulance, and a fourth rammed into a truck on Interstate 287. Four accidents involving allegedly drunken drivers within a three-week period is hardly unusual in Westchester. What made these stand out were the drivers: All were off-duty law enforcement officers, and all now face misdemeanor charges of driving while intoxicated. At a time when police brass are pushing DWI crackdowns, which have led to a record number of arrests, the recent cluster of crashes allegedly by drunken police officers from Dobbs Ferry, Westchester County and White Plains, plus a county correction officer, has been an official embarrassment and a public eye-opener. However, police say it's not completely surprising, given that many in law enforcement quietly turn a blind eye to drunken off-duty officers when they're stopped. "If you can get them a ride home and put their car someplace safe, that's what you do," said one central Westchester patrol officer who agreed to speak anonymously. "It's kind of an unwritten rule. You don't jam up another cop unless you have to." In conversations with 10 police officers who spoke under the condition that their names and departments not be identified, all told The Journal News that off-duty cops are rarely charged with driving while intoxicated unless they were involved in an accident. "That's a situation that you can't hide," said one officer. "I'm not going to risk my career in a case like that." Even when they are arrested, law enforcement officers, familiar with the legal system, do what they can to protect themselves. In the recent cases, White Plains Police Officer Joe Zepeda, county Officer Joseph Kraus, Dobbs Ferry Officer Michael Huffman and Correction Officer Patricia Yancy-Johnson all refused to submit to chemical tests that determine blood-alcohol levels, despite knowing that their driver's licenses could be automatically revoked for a year. "I would never submit to the test, because I wouldn't want to give (prosecutors) any evidence that would help them prosecute me," said one police officer who has made several DWI arrests in the past year. "Better to let my lawyer fight to keep my license." That's exactly what defense lawyer Andrew Quinn did for Huffman, who is accused of losing control of his car and rolling over while speeding down a curvy roadway Dec. 11 in Tarrytown. Huffman handed over his license at his Dec. 16 arraignment in Village Court. A week later, his license was returned to him at a "refusal hearing" required by the Department of Motor Vehicles when someone declines to take a chemical test. Huffman still could lose his license, depending on the outcome of his criminal case. The automatic revocation "was dismissed for lack of evidence," said Quinn. "It's not uncommon for individuals charged with DWI to refuse to take the test." That's because, without chemical proof of drunkenness, the arresting agency has a high burden of proof, particularly before the DMV judge. "There are a series of predicate acts that have to take place before the DMV will take your license," Quinn said. Among other things, prosecutors must demonstrate that the driver was clearly warned that his refusal would lead to revocation and that the driver persistently refused the test. "And all of it has to be testified to by firsthand knowledge," Quinn said. "All of the correct officers have to show up. It may require two or three officers, and a lot of times that doesn't happen." Attorney Harold Dee, a former New York City traffic judge, suggested that police intentionally botch their cases against fellow cops. "They're all in the brotherhood, so I don't imagine all of the prosecuting cops are going to show up," Dee said. "It's the famous blue wall. If they do show up, they're going to 'dump,' say, 'I didn't see this or that.' " It's still rare that police officers even get arrested for DWI, or any other driving infraction, he added. "When did you ever hear of a cop even getting a speeding ticket?" Dee asked. "You don't think cops speed? Who ever writes a cop up? It's the unwritten thing. It's not done. It's the sense of brotherhood they have. They take care of each other. It's only cases like this (crashes) where it comes to the surface. There's no way to cover it up." Even in these cases, Dee said, officers know not to provide any further incriminating evidence. They often refuse to take field sobriety tests, as is their right. They refuse to take breath tests because even a low alcohol reading can lead to a conviction. At 0.05 percent — the equivalent of consuming as little as two drinks — they're guilty of driving while impaired. If they measure 0.18 percent, they would be charged with aggravated DWI. "This is the real world," Dee said. "That's why these guys don't blow, because you've got to be stupid to blow unless you know you've had, say, one glass of wine and a big burger with it, and you know you're not guilty." Westchester District Attorney Janet DiFiore said DWI prosecution has been a priority of her administration. She said her office has "tried to change the culture that has existed around DWI crimes." "We're looking to erode the culture of tolerance and to make sure that all of us in law enforcement are responding in the strong and effective way that we should be," DiFiore said. Told that a number of police officers admitted anonymously that they try to cover for off-duty officers driving drunk, DiFiore said she was "very disappointed" to hear that. "DWI is a very serious crime, no matter who that crime is committed by," she said. "It puts the individual in danger and it puts everyone else and everyone else's family in danger. Am I surprised to hear that? I'm not sure that I'm surprised, but I'm certainly very disappointed." Although she would not comment specifically about the recent cases, DiFiore said chemical test refusals are a major issue in DWI prosecutions. "The refusals are very problematic," she said. "These can be very difficult cases to prove, especially when someone refuses to take the chemical test that gives us the evidence we need to go forward." For that reason, DiFiore said, her office plans to look for ways to strengthen the refusal law. "We're going to be looking (at) the refusal law and the consequences for refusing to take a chemical test," she said. "We want to make certain that we're pushing for consequences that are harsh enough to be a real deterrent. In the meantime, the cases involving the four officers accused of DWI crashes are making their way through local courts The officers have been suspended by their departments — Zepeda without pay — pending the outcome of their criminal cases. Yancy-Johnson, who is accused of striking an ambulance Dec. 27, has been allowed to continue working at the county jail, though her privileges to drive a county vehicle and carry a weapon were suspended pending her case in Greenburgh.

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