Bannister DUI Case: Porter says no charges for deputy, personnel

LAWRENCEVILLE -- District Attorney Danny Porter has elected not to press criminal charges against Sheriff's Department personnel or anyone else involved in the controversial arrest of Gwinnett's top government official earlier this summer.

While the case is bereft of criminal charges, it has resulted in several key changes at the Sheriff's Department, the agency that arrested Commission Chairman Charles Bannister on drunken driving charges though he had no alcohol in his system.

The District Attorney's Office issued a press release Tuesday summarizing Porter's findings and made public 294 pages of documents detailing a Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe requested by Sheriff Butch Conway. The GBI report was forwarded to Porter earlier this month for a decision on criminal charges, a common but not required practice.

Porter said he found no grounds to charge Sheriff's Department personnel or witnesses in the June 28 incident with lying to the GBI in interviews, though there were some inconsistencies in statements.

As for the arrest itself, Porter considered charging the arresting deputy with false imprisonment, but did not find a complete absence of probable cause for Bannister's arrest, which the state requires for the charge, he said.

"It's not like (Deputy Michael G. Cummings) just snatched (Bannister) off the street for nothing," Porter said.

The hullabaloo stems from a phone call a customer at Cafe Hot Wing in Lilburn made the evening of June 28 to a personal friend at the Sheriff's Department. The customer reported that Bannister was drinking beer after arriving in his county-issued Crown Victoria.

Cummings, directed by his supervisor to keep watch, observed Bannister for an hour before pulling him over and arresting him for driving under the influence. Bannister later blew zero on a breathalyzer test but was transported to Gwinnett Medical Center in shackles for blood testing.

Bannister later declared that he would be "completely exonerated," and he was. The expedited blood test showed no alcohol in his system at the time of his arrest, and his charges were subsequently dismissed.

Asked for a reaction, Bannister said he was attempting to read the voluminous GBI report between meetings of the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday afternoon.

"I'm still not saying anything," he said. "I want to see all of it."

As the business day wound down, Bannister said in an e-mail he hoped to finish reading the report today.

The GBI stepped in at the request of Conway, who'd organized a press conference to publicly apologize to Bannister as he prepped for a business trip to China.

Porter mentioned that statements varied regarding the number of times deputies called Conway as Bannister was being observed and, later, tested. Conway told the Daily Post he was communicating with deputies from a metal-sided shop on his farm, and that frequent callbacks were the result of dropped calls.

Conway has ordered that Cummings, the arresting deputy, undergo additional DUI enforcement training. Lt. Buzz Benson, the supervisor on scene, has been "verbally counseled specifically for failure to contact outside agency assistance" at the scene, after the sheriff instructed him to do so, Conway said.

The sheriff said Porter's findings came as no surprise.

"I apologized in June and said it was bad judgment," Conway said. "We realized at that time that was the case. The deputies had not intentionally done anything wrong."

In reaction to the incident, Conway said he plans to spend about $200,000 in drug forfeiture funds to install in-car video cameras in all marked cars and equip deputies with handheld alcohol-detection equipment.

The department has only three cars equipped with in-car video. None was involved in Bannister's arrest.

"We are taking corrective actions," Conway said.

Additional DUI and traffic enforcement training for all deputies is scheduled, Conway said.

Porter said he's closing the case based on his findings. He noted that, in reviewing the GBI reports, he did not consider whether "there were any policy violations or grounds for a civil suit."

Staff Writer Camie Young contributed to this report.