Back in July, a jolly account of a drunk driving accident appeared in the Fort Bragg Advocate. It said that “Dr. Brett W. Stine had come within 'a hair's width' of being sent to state prison for not revealing that he had a prior DUI.” The phrase 'a hair's width' was Judge Lehan's. Stine was in court on a second DUI. He hadn't revealed the first one, and it hadn't become known until he was in court looking at sentencing for his second drunk driving charge.
The story went on to say that this victim of Stine's second DUI, a young man named Jason Ross “did not want his words to lead a judge to send anyone to state prison.” As “most everyone in the courtroom was either shedding tears or trying not to, Stine hugged his victim, who forgave him.” Lehan then sentenced Stine to a year in the County Jail with the usual stipulations.
Always suspicious of Judge Lehan's haphazard administration of Ten Mile Court, and doubly suspicious of any fuzzy warm stories coming out of any courtroom, I made an in-print remark I now regret. I said if I'd been the judge I would have sent everyone to prison for being maudlin in public.
I'd only gotten half the story.
The full story is this: On the first day of February of this year, Jason Ross was driving from his home near Mendocino to his job in Philo as maintenance mechanic at Navarro Vineyards. He also worked as a bartender at Dick's Place in Mendocino. But from February the first these jobs are past tense. Ross hasn't been able to work since.
“I was negotiating the set of curves where Highway One turns inland from the coast and makes its way down to the Navarro River, across from the old Navarro by the Sea inn. I was about to enter a left hand corner in my '03 Mini Cooper when I saw Mr. Stine's 2000 Dodge Dakota coming about half-to-three quarters of the way into my lane. I had nowhere to go and didn't even have time to hit the brakes. His vehicle impacted mine and threw it into the guardrail, which was luckily there; if it hadn't been there I probably wouldn't be writing this right now.”
That isn't the place you want someone pushing you over the side. Stine had hit Ross hard enough to send him three hundred feet down the cliff and into the Navarro, but Ross, as he says, was saved by the guardrail. The CHP, Ross remembers, and a kindly man from the Elk Fire Department soon arrived. It took the full rescue team some time to extract Ross from the wreckage of his Mini Cooper.
Stine is a chiropractor based in Lake County. He was driving drunk that Monday morning. He'd been arrested before for driving drunk. And the very day after he'd clobbered Ross, Stine was again arrested by the CHP for riding his bicycle drunk near Albion.
Ross's injuries were severe enough that it was decided to airlift him to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. He'd wanted the ambulance to take him to Coast Hospital, but he was in no condition to argue.
The collision with Stine cost Ross his jobs and his health and earned him a stack of doctor and hospital bills.
“It's unclear if I can get my old jobs back because, the doctors tell me, I could re-injure myself. They tell me I might be able to work as a mechanic in a few years, but that doesn't help me right now. As far as the bar, as much as I like bartending I under the concerns seeing as how bartenders occasionally have to act as bouncers, too. I hate the fact that I have to live in fear of possible re-injury. I've been dealing with this for almost a year now, and I really don't even want to imagine having to deal with it any longer.”
The case against Stine for nearly killing Ross finally arrived in Judge Lehan's court in Fort Bragg. Ross, alone, also appeared that day. Stine arrived with a small army of family and friends. Ross didn't know that Stine had a prior for drunk driving. The court didn't know either. Stine hadn't mentioned it, but here he was in court on what appeared to be his very first DUI.
Ross was incredulous.
“I was not notified of the prior DUI until during the proceedings around the time Judge Lehan made his 'hair’s width' comment. At that point Mr. Lehan moved to take recess so the assistant DA, I believe his name was Mr. Stoen, could discuss with me how we should proceed. Mr. Stoen turned to me in the courtroom in front of Mr. Stine’s family and friends, who were sitting directly behind me, and asked, 'You want to send him to prison, right?' I replied to him that I felt it was inappropriate to discuss it in this environment, and that we should speak in private.”
Ross says he talked in private to prosecutor Stoen for about five minutes “trying to express what I wanted to see done. I had come to the conclusion that Mr. Stine being thrown in prison immediately following the court case would not help me to get my mass of medical bills paid or help him to get his life on track. That being said I had no intention of just letting him walk free, nor would the court allow it (at least we hope, right?), so I intended a punishment of some kind.”
But something major got lost in the translation.
“In the Fort Bragg Advocate's piece as well as in your own text, it was said that 'I did not want my words to lead a judge into sending anyone to state prison.' That was never said. This is what was said, these words come directly from my verbal statement to the court: 'When it comes down to it, even finding out today about the prior conviction for DUI, I won’t lie; it makes me very angry that this has happened, but at the same time I can’t be put in a position by anybody of ‘here is somebody's life, you choose what happens.' I understand; it's just that at the same time if I were to be here and advise for state prison time for someone's mistake, I would not personally feel right about that. Realistically, [Mr. Stine] made a huge mistake that has taken my life that I was very comfortable in, with a good job, making good money and his mistake has basically brought me down to nothing at this point. But, at the same time, the only thing I can truly hope for out of this is that by me trying to show you some compassion and not pursuing having you sent to a state prison and giving you the option for rehabilitation, that it will happen for you, that you will be able to get your life in order and not have this problem that has been obviously overshadowing you for most of your life. That is all I hope for and that is why I ask for the stipulation of suspended sentencing of state prison to make sure that my trust and compassion is not misplaced and that you do follow through on your treatment. I think that what I care about most out of this is that you get your treatment and come out of this a better person, and that hopefully a situation like this will never happen with you again.”
“I think that with all that happened, the 'new' DUI, and being put on the spot by Mr. Stoen in front of the entire court, and the mistakes as far as what I was trying to explain as to what I wanted done versus what Mr. Stoen said in court, added up to make for one of the most difficult days of my life, but I still feel to this day that I made the right decision. In the end Mr. Stine had to face 365 days in county jail with the option for work release and monitoring, loss of his driving license, 5 years pro-bation and a full spectrum of rehabilitation. If that was the extent of the punishment I would not only feel like a fool but probably also say that I deserved what you wrote in the AVA, but that’s not the case. I opted for the sus-pended sentence of two years in prison for a few reasons. The main reason is that it at least gave him a chance to make himself better; it became his choice as soon as we were out of court to either get better or go to prison, and if he fails any sort of monitoring, probation, or rehabilitation that is exactly where he will end up. Realistically, having him in prison helps no one; it doesn't help me get all of these bills paid, it doesn't help his family, and it wouldn't have made me feel any better to send him there.”