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Blood test exonerates Bannister, Sheriff calls DUI charges a 'mistake'

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

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

A blood sample drawn by deputies for testing by 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.

Deputies used eyewitness statements, Bannister's admission to drinking beer and roadside sobriety tests to conclude Bannister was under the influence. Conway continues to "totally deny" that the arrest was politically motivated or a set-up by his department.

"These deputies are not politically involved in anything, to my knowledge," he 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 a 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, Conway said. All deputies receive training on DUI violations, which are technical, fraught with loopholes and difficult to prove, he said.

Conway's department made just seven DUI arrests last year, which called into question why the Sheriff's Department was involved.

The initial caller contacted a friend and off-duty Sheriff's Department deputy whose number he 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 was not 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 or not, 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, but that doesn't apply to elected officials on the county level, he said.

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

The Sheriff's Department has only three cars equipped with in-car video. Neither was involved in Bannister's arrest.

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.

"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 greater precaution and collected multiple witness statements knowing 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 it's face. I'm apologizing for that mistake."

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."

Bannister, 71, and his attorney have maintained through the ordeal the blood tests would exonerate him.