Bannister cleared of DUI charges

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway issued an apology Thursday morning to Chairman Charles Bannister and his family after an expedited blood test showed the chairman had no alcohol in his system during a DUI arrest Monday night.

A blood sample drawn by deputies for testing at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's crime lab yielded similar results Thursday to a Breathalyzer test Bannister consented to in jail -- a blood alcohol level of .000, Conway said.

Conway has asked Gwinnett County Solicitor Rosanna Szabo to dismiss all charges, he said during a press conference.

"I want to extend my apology, personally, to Chairman Bannister, his wife and family for this entire incident," Conway said. "At this point, I feel the deputies probably relied on eyewitness statements to too great an extent."

An analysis of Bannister's blood was expedited due to media interest in the case. Conway said he personally spoke with GBI Director Vernon Keenan and asked he give the test first priority.

Bannister's attorney, Alan Mullinax, confirmed that Bannister had been invited by Conway to the 11:15 a.m. press conference but couldn't attend. Bannister is prepping for a scheduled business mission to China, his attorney said.

In a statement, Bannister called his family the true victims of the allegations, adding the GBI blood test results hardly came as a surprise. A message left at the chairman's Lilburn home Thursday was not returned.

"I have been completely exonerated and am relieved that the truth has now been revealed," Bannister's statement reads.

Sheriff: 'Set-up' claims bogus

Deputies used eyewitness statements, Bannister's admission to drinking "one or two beers" at Cafe Hot Wing in Lilburn and roadside sobriety tests to conclude Bannister was under the influence.

It's possible Bannister could have metabolized the alcohol he confessed to drinking before blood was drawn, Conway said.

Conway continues to "totally deny" that the arrest was politically motivated, or a set-up against a commissioner who's recently been embroiled in major political controversies.

"These deputies are not politically involved in anything, to my knowledge," Conway said. "And, to my knowledge, neither were the eyewitnesses that made the phone call" reporting Bannister was drinking while using his county-issued car at the Lilburn cafe, Conway said.

The arresting deputy, M.G. Cumming, has 14 years law enforcement experience, six of that with the Gwinnett County Police Department, which handles the bulk of DUI arrests, Conway said.

Though all deputies are trained in DUI procedures, Conway confirmed his department made just seven DUI arrests last year, which called into question why the Sheriff's Department was involved in the first place.

The tipster, David Nesmith, contacted an off-duty Sheriff's Department deputy, a personal friend whose number Nesmith carried in his cell phone. That deputy contacted a supervisor about how to proceed, Conway said.

Conway said he received several phone calls from deputies as Bannister's vehicle was being watched and informed a supervisor "to do his job." Conway also advised deputies to contact the Gwinnett police DUI task force, who had jurisdiction, but was told that unit wasn't on shift yet, he said.

Reports indicate Bannister was having drinks with two men at the time, but only Bannister was followed. Conway had no input as to whether Bannister should be charged, he said.

"The information (from the caller) wasn't on how much (the other two men) had to drink ... I think the county vehicle was certainly part of this, and part of what led to the mistake," Conway said. "We may have got a little over-zealous because it was a county vehicle being operated."

Conway said it's not against the law to drink and drive in a county vehicle. The Sheriff's Department has a zero tolerance policy regarding alcohol use and county vehicles, but that doesn't apply to county employees.

Termination is an option for a county employee arrested for DUI in a county car, but reprimands don't apply to elected officials, a county spokesperson said this week.

Both deputies involved in Bannister's arrest have multiple years experience with Conway's department and county police, he said. Neither will face reprimands but could be retrained in DUI procedures, he said.

The Sheriff's Department has only three cars equipped with in-car video. Neither was involved in Bannister's arrest, and the arresting deputy did not have alcohol-detecting equipment, Conway said.

Based on the incident, Conway said he plans to install in-car video and equip all deputies with Alco-Sensors (handheld alcohol-sensing meters) in the department's field operation and civil division. Department officials could not immediately estimate how many vehicles that will encompass.

"It's not hundreds," Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Stacey Bourbonnais said.

Conway said he'll use existing drug forfeiture money to pay for the added equipment.

Conway said his relationship with Bannister carries conflicting interests but no personal animosity. He openly supported Bannister's chief rival, Lorraine Green, in a 2008 election.

"There's been a lot of talk about the chairman and I being political adversaries, having personal dislike of each other -- and that's not true," Conway said. "We're not close friends, but I certainly consider him a business associate."

Conway said deputies took precautions and collected multiple witness statements beyond what's common in DUI arrests because they knew the case involved a top government official and would be subject to public scrutiny.

"Police and deputies are not infallible," he said. "They made a mistake, and that's apparent on its face. I'm apologizing for that mistake."

An Intoxilyzer administered 53 minutes after the traffic stop showed Bannister had no alcohol on his breath, yet he was transported in waist-chains and shackles to Gwinnett Medical Center for a blood test.

"When I found out (about the negative breath reading), they had already taken (the blood test) or were en route to the hospital," Conway said.

Bannister was released from jail on his own recognizance two hours after his arrest.

Richard Lawson, a Lawrenceville DUI attorney, said the case calls into question the validity of field sobriety tests, which are sometimes used as evidence in DUI convictions when drivers refuse other testing, he said.

Lawson contends the tests are designed to be failed.

"The field sobriety tests are the basis for thousands of arrests (per year)," he said. "This outcome clearly shows that a person can be 100 percent sober and still fail field sobriety."

Mullinax, who practices DUI cases, told the Post earlier this week the "walk and turn" test Bannister was subjected to isn't recommend for anyone over age 55, because of diminished agility. Banister turned 71 on June 10.

Political repercussions?

Bannister has helmed the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners since 2004.

In recent years, he's faced opposition, including: the empaneling of a special grand jury to investigate land deals made by commissioners, backlash from residents angry over decisions to raise taxes and implement Gwinnett's new trash plan and lawsuits involving the trash plan and service delivery strategies with local cities.

One Dacula man has filed paperwork to begin a recall petition against the chairman, whose term expires in two years. The application awaits a judge's ruling before the petition can proceed.

As for potential damage to Bannister's reputation, Conway said: "People are too quick to jump. I've heard a lot of comments both ways on this. It reminds us that's why we have courts, that's why we have defense attorneys, and that's why we test."

Throughout the ordeal, Bannister had maintained, via his attorney and press releases, that the blood test would exonerate him.

Staff Writer Camie Young contributed to this report.