Just a Matter of Time?

by Bruce McEwen, August 5, 2009

“I guess it was just a matter of time,” a patron of the Ledford House restaurant in Albion said when he heard about Anthony Geer’s DUI.

Mr. Geer owns the renowned Coast eatery.

Patrol deputies were staked out on Albion Ridge Road when Mr. Geer drove home from the restaurant with his wife. He'd had a glass or two of wine. Maybe three, but fine wine goes with fine food, and Mr. Geer is accustomed to both, in tandem.

The deputies watched as Mr. Geer drove past them, noting that the taillights on Mr. Geer's car were out. The deputies followed their prey across the Albion River Bridge and practically into his yard before they pulled him over. They would soon tell Mr. Geer that his taillights were off but he was lit.

The comment about it being just a matter of time suggests that it has been Mr. Geer’s practice to enjoy wine with his dinner before driving home. Why shouldn't he? The Geers work hard, very hard, and what's the harm? The man's an artist, a culinary artist, and artists should get some leeway.

Geer’s chances of beating the charges, charges that seemed a little too calculated, looked pretty good. He had a great lawyer, the adroit, articulate, and thorough stickler for detail, Rodney Jones of Mendocino. Jones was up against one of District Attorney Meredith Lintott’s green new deputies, Sergio Fuentes, turned out in his best suit for his first jury trial.

Mr. Fuentes worked his way through night school and passed the California State Bar exam on the first swing, according to his new boss, Assistant DA Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Norman. Mr. Fuentes is smart but new at the work.

Mr. Jones is very smart with years of experience.

DA Lintott has endured some criticism at recent meetings of the County supervisors who want more prosecutorial bang for the public's buck. It was easy to imagine that there was some pressure on Sergio Fuentes to kick at least a field goal in the case of The People vs. Geer, thus at least partially vindicating the DA’s wisdom in hiring him as the County's hiring freeze goes from frigid to Arctic.

The DA’s lead prosecutor, Jill Ravitch, and another assistant DA, Shannon Hamilton, were on hand to coach young Fuentes, as the wily old defense veteran Rod Jones sized up his adversaries with a wry smile and the trial began.

What ensued had many interesting aspects, and at times uninvolved lawyers were in and out of the courtroom, coming and going like sports fans at the big board in Vegas, checking the score, catching some of the highlights, assessing the condition of the field and the refs.

The jurors were pretty much engrossed with the way Rod Jones argued the curve, the blood-alcohol curve, as he disputed the highly technical jargon of the DA’s expert witness, Deborah Enns, who had driven down from the crime lab in Eureka to clear up any possible doubt that the breathalyzer used on defendant Geer could be faulty.

The DA's office was going all out against the Albion chef, all out and perhaps over the top.

As it happened, Ms. Enns, ace toxicologist, had been at the Fort Bragg substation the day before the bust, checking the equipment and training the very officer who busted Geer on the Alvolar-brand breathalyzer, the infallible Alvolar-brand breathalyzer.

That would be Sheriff’s Deputy Paul Van Baren, an officer widely regarded in the Albion area as something of a zealot.

Van Baren's partner, Deputy Stephen Gray had administered Mr. Geer's breath test.

But what’s with this recent spate of DUI's? Is the economy driving people to drink? Has Mendocino County suddenly hit the road loaded?

DA Lintott told the supervisors there has been an increase in crime generally, and Assistant DA Norman said recently that the court calendar was fairly bursting with crime of the DUI type.

Ms. Norman was convincing, but is a crack down on otherwise marginal cases like the one that snared Mr. Geer really anything more than a means of buttressing the DA’s budget demands in these lean times?

Rodney Jones for the defense seemed to think that the recent spike in DUI's was suspicious.

“So, then,” Jones asked, “is every traffic stop you make a potential DUI investigation, Deputy Van Baren?” Jones asked.

“Sure,” the deputy answered with obvious satisfaction. “I’m always looking for the red, watery eyes, the smell of alcohol.”

With just a little stage make-up, Paul Van Baren could play a convincing mouse. His nose is pointy and his ears are perfect; he even has the requisite twitchy whiskers. It’s easy to imagine him sniffing the evening breezes for alcohol vapors as he approaches a driver on a routine traffic stop.

“So, every stop is a potential DUI?” Jones repeated.

“Yes, a DUI investigation. Absolutely.”

“And you’ve only had about 80 DUI convictions out of over 500 investigations?”

Jones wasn’t really asking so Van Baren didn’t really answer.

Jones continued.

“And why was Tony Geer under investigation for DUI?”

“He got out of his car when we pulled him over.”

“He was practically in his own driveway. Why was that so unusual?”

“Most officers don’t encourage people to get out of their cars,” Van Baren said blandly.

But Mr. Geer had gotten out of his car and, as Deputy Van Baren approached, the deputy's keen nose picked up the telltale vintage of Mr. Geer’s breath. His suspicions, he said, had been justified, and the infallible new Alvolar breathalyzer at the Fort Bragg substation would vindicate his unfailing sense of smell.

Van Baren gave Mr. Geer the field sobriety test as his partner Deputy Gray guarded the car door behind which Mrs. Geer was seated

The rookie prosecutor, Mr. Fuentes, had his difficulties. He stuck to his notes like a student with a cheatsheet and fumbled many of his lines.

But he won.

On both counts: driving under the influence of alcohol and driving while over the legal limit of 0.08% blood alcohol content. The credit for the conviction, however, goes to technology, and to Ms. Deborah Enns, an expert witness from the state crime lab in Eureka.

Mr. Jones valiantly argued “the curve,” which has to do with the rate at which alcohol dissipates, and the law doesn't even consider the wildly varying tolerances for alcohol of different persons. One size fits all, and that size is 0.08.

Ms. Enns' testimony established that Mr. Geer had very probably consumed more than the glass and a half of wine he confessed to having with his dinner.

Under cross-examination by Jones, Enns had the jury absolutely spellbound with the nuances and intricacies of the AlcoTest 7410 by Drager Instruments, the Title 17 calibration regulations and the relevant absorption and elimination rates of various liquors.

Jones argued that Mr. Geer twice blew 0.13's. There'd been either machine or operator error because at the time Mr. Geer was driving mathematically he'd been at 0.15, which didn't square with the field sobriety tests. Jones would comment later that Ms. Enns, from the Department of Justice office in Eureka was so wed to her faith in the machine that she couldn't see that on “4 or 5 tests run after Mr. Geer's, the machine did not produce the correct values.”

Only two men sat in judgment, and it was easy to imagine the mostly female jury identifying more with the defendant’s wife, but it wasn't Mrs. Geer on trial, and however much the jury may have sympathized with Mrs. Geer, they found her husband guilty, and a good portion of the receipts from the Ledford House will be going into the court’s coffers, thanks, in part, at least, to the new Deputy DA Sergio Fuentes’ first appearance in the big leagues.

Me?

I don't think Mr. Geer was in the least impaired.

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