by Bruce McEwen, March 7, 2012
How many lawyers does it take to beat a DUI?
At least three if you're the drunk lawyer.
Mill Valley attorney Robert Praszker was charged with two DUIs, so you got him and the senior partners of Miller & Hansen last week trying to get him off the deuce he picked up in Anderson Valley last summer.
“Deuce” is legalese for driving under the influence (DUI). (“Lucky Deuce” is the unfortunate name of one of the Drunk Driving Schools the perps are sometimes required to attend.)
It seems the days of drinking and driving are pretty much over. God knows it was a common enough practice back in the day, but things have changed. For the better, too. Highway fatalities are down, and we can all feel a little safer. But there are some nostalgic characters out there who think they can still get away with it — worse, they seem to think it’s okay.
“Mr. Praszker is a very smart man,” one of his lawyers told Praszker's disbelieving jury last week. “You have to be to be a lawyer. Not that all lawyers are all that smart, heh, heh … hew.”
What he meant, the unsmart attorney continued, is that Mr. Praszker is clever enough to know that the Jose Cuervos and Coronas from the Boonville Pick’N’Pay would not reach the critical blood-alcohol limit of .08 until Praszker and his Porsche reached his Albion rental.
He could down those babies and still be legally sober while he was on the road because it took the 45 minutes from Boonville to Albion before the booze made him legally drunk. If his calibrations worked out, Mr. P would be technically sober by the time he hit his front door at the Albion Nation. To slow the absorption rate of the alcohol into the bloodstream, the shrewd Praszker had also bought himself a gut-bomb of a burrito. To Praszker’s eventual chagrin, the burrito went uneaten.
The jury shot Praszker some puzzled looks, which Praszker seems to have interpreted as awe and admiration, not understanding that to many people in Mendocino County you put lawyer, Marin County and Porsche in one big package and what you get is....
Lawyer— Strike One!
Porsche — Strike Two!
Marin — Yer Outtahere! Grab some pine, meat!
The jury was quick to find the Porsche-driving Marin County lawyer guilty, and this caused the Porsche-driving Marin County lawyer to actually look at the jury for the first time rather than gaze abstractedly over their heads, perhaps thinking to himself, “I can get over on these bumpkins, no problemo.”
We'll return to Mr. P.
* * *
For those who can’t afford to tool up and down the hairpins of Mendocino’s highways in a high-performance cornering marvel like a vintage Porsche, there is always the off-highway tracks, your all-terrain vehicles, ATVs, four-wheelers, quads; whatever you like to call ‘em. If you have children, or know anybody who does, you’ve heard of these things. They are lotsa fun and come in all sizes for every age group — infants included — fancy or plain, whatever you can afford.
Until recently, you were free to roar around the public lands on these things, and official notice rarely resulted in criminal charges. If you were wheeling through the trees drunk, good luck and good riddance if you broke your fool neck. But again, all that’s changed as Jose Carrera found out when he picked up a DUI from a game warden last summer riding his quad on a remote Potter Valley trail.
This reporter was called for jury duty, which turned out to be Mr. Carrera’s trial in Judge John Behnke’s court. The Honorable John Behnke's haircut makes him look vaguely like Ringo Starr. Jose Carrera’s lawyer was Willits DUI attorney Linda McNeil, the same lawyer this reporter described as a Grandma Smucker's look-alike when he wrote about her last summer in the Deborah Mefferd DUI case. Ms. McNeil didn't look happy to see me, and summarily excused me from serving on her jury. I was in good company. Judge David Nelson was also called for this jury and he too was rejected by Ms. McNeil.
* * *
At any rate, being called for jury duty long enough to be dismissed called me away from the Praszker matter just as Anderson Valley’s resident deputy, Craig Walker, was being sworn in so I missed Walker's testimony. Apparently, Walker had pulled Mr. Praszker’s Porsche over for speeding through Philo at 49mph (speed limit: 30mph), and when Walker approached the driver's side of the spiffy little automobile he caught a telltale whiff of alcohol. (Locals are perpetually upset that out-of-towners speed through Philo. There have some terrible accidents there and several deaths over the past decade. Although Caltrans has erected all kinds of Slow Down signs, people continue to slam on through.) Deputy Walker noted other indications that Mr. Praszker had been drinking and, as per protocol, called for a CHP officer, Glen Thomas, for a second opinion. Highway Patrol officers are better equipped and more experienced for drinking and driving cases than the Sheriff’s deputies.
The CHP's Thomas was delayed arriving on-scene, which caused Praszker so much consternation he began to tantrum and generally go off.
“Based on the subject’s demeanor,” Officer Thomas would report, “Deputies Walker and Espinoza helped me to cuff him.”
This would never happen in San Anselmo!
Mr. Praszker is something of a gym rat, we learned from his girlfriend, Renée Engelen, a realtor who came up from Marin County to testify on his behalf. She said they woke up together on Saturday, August 20th, enjoyed breakfast and she went off to her office in the city. They met later, about four in the afternoon, at Praszker's house and went to the gym to work out. They were planning to go out to dinner when Mr. Praszker’s landlord in Albion called to say that abalone diving conditions were very good. Praszker abruptly changed his dinner plans at hearing the abalone news. He’s an avid abalone diver — so avid, in fact, that he complained about the limit of only 24 abalone per year while he was on the stand, nicely digging himself in deeper with the jury of locals aware that the resource, between poachers and the sheer numbers of Praszkers hunting the tasty mollusk, have made its continued existence problematical.
“Before he left did he have anything to drink?” Mr. Hansen asked Ms. Engelen.
“Oh, no,” Ms. Engelen said. “He doesn’t even keep any kind of alcohol in the house.”
This was more answer than was called for, and Judge Ann Moorman reminded the witness that she was to answer the questions simply and briefly, and not add any comments. Ms. Engelen's piously loyal remark about Praszker not keeping any booze in his house was stricken and the jury told to disregard it.
Deputy DA Doug Parker said, “But he could have had a drink during the day, then used Scope or brushed his teeth, as far as you know, couldn’t he?”
“Yes,” she admitted, “he could have.”
“He’s your boyfriend?”
“Do you love him?”
“Sometimes,” she laughed.
“Do you want to protect him?”
“But you didn’t go with him, did you?”
“So you don’t know whether he drank or not, do you?”
The jury was given the case; it didn’t take them long to return the guilty verdict. But on count two, the business about being over .08, the legal limit. Praszker’s blood alcohol level read out at .112 but one of the jurors hung on it.
* * *
Across the hall, the Jose Carrera trial was underway. He was charged with a number of things which seemed like the warden was piling it on, such as giving a false name. Carrera quite reasonably said his name was Joe, for instance. The reason for the piling on of charges seemed to have been caused by Mr. Carrera's having relieved himself on the warden’s truck seat. This the warden felt was entirely uncalled for, which it would have been if it had been deliberate.
But Carrera said the warden wouldn’t allow him to go to a rest room, even though he'd been transported to a place called Knott’s Corner on Eel River Road where a restroom is available.
“He’s a big individual.” The warden said. “He was getting agitated, so I cuffed him and put him in the vehicle.”
Carrera had taken his son, a nephew and a friend of the boys on this outing, and it seemed a shame that the day had been ruined by the game warden, who, back in the day, would have been concerned with poachers, not enforcing victimless non-crimes like drinking beer out in the hills with nobody else anywhere around. But things have changed and the jury brought back guilty verdicts on everything the warden wanted, save one:
Count I. Operating a motor vehicle while under the influence — Guilty.
Count II. A blood alcohol level of .08 or more — Guilty. (Carrera’s blood alcohol level was .15.)
Count III. Giving a false name to a police officer — Guilty. (It says “Jose” on his driver’s license, so saying his name was Joe Carrera was a crime.)
Count IV. Refusing a blood test — Guilty. (Since Carrera wasn’t actually caught riding the four-wheeler, he felt since he wasn’t driving he didn’t therefore need to take the test. The warden said he “knew” Carrerra had been driving it.)
Count V. Evading a police officer — Not Guilty. (Even the hard-nosed disciplinarians on this jury couldn’t go so far as to suppose Carrera should have made himself more available to the warden, though it was unclear how he had “evaded” capture.
If I had been on this jury Joe Carrera would have been acquitted or the jury hopelessly hung, and it was Grandma Smuckers who'd rejected me! Deputy DA Josh Rosenfeld, having been told by three other prosecutors in his office that I could be fair and impartial, was perfectly willing to retain my services.