Breathalyzer passed; alphabet, standing tests prompted Bannister's arrest

LILBURN -- Field sobriety tests that included reciting the alphabet and standing on one leg proved to authorities Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charles Bannister was too intoxicated to be driving his county-issued Ford Crown Victoria, according to reports released Tuesday.

A Sheriff's Department deputy stopped the veteran public official on Killian Hill Road in Lilburn, down the road from his Emily Drive home, about 8 p.m. after observing him weave and make an abrupt lane change, one report says.

Bannister later told authorities he drank one or two beers at Cafe Hot Wing, 895 Indian Trail Road, where a patron had called an acquaintance at the Sheriff's Department to say the county's top government official was consuming alcohol, his car with government plates parked outside.

The arresting deputy monitored Bannister's vehicle for about an hour from a Shell station across the street until he left, a report says.

In a statement, Bannister pointed to a Breathalyzer test conducted at the Gwinnett County Jail that showed no alcohol in his system. He assured his constituents he'd be exonerated of all charges.

A deputy concluded the Breathalyzer reading was faulty and took a blood sample Bannister consented to. Gwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway on Tuesday publicly backed his deputy's actions in arresting Bannister, calling the totality of evidence -- witness accounts, the failed sobriety tests, the odor of alcohol on Bannister and his own statements -- sufficient for the charges.

A toxicology analysis of the blood sample Bannister gave should be ready within a month, officials said.

Bannister was jailed for about two hours before posting $1,557 bond Monday night. He was visited in jail by his wife, Glenda, according to jail records. He's charged with misdemeanor DUI and improper turning.

The incident began when cafe patron David Nesmith, 48, of Lilburn, called an off-duty deputy he knew to report Bannister's alleged actions. The deputy contacted his supervisor, who sent Deputy M.G. Cummings to investigate.

Nesmith was accompanied by his friend, Michael Hill, 29, of Lilburn. Both were interviewed extensively by Sheriff's Department authorities, reporting that Bannister drank beer with two other men while conducting what looked like real estate business, a report says. Neither Nesmith nor Hill returned calls seeking comment Tuesday.

A waitress at the cafe told authorities she'd delivered five Bud Light drafts, one half-pitcher and a Diet Coke to the table of three, noting "they had all drank beer together," according to a supplemental report by Sheriff's Department Lt. Buzz Benson.

An American Express receipt for $20.35 found in Bannister's car, along with employee statements, showed he'd purchased the drinks, according to Benson's report.

Capt. Bruce Hedley of Lilburn police said the cafe lies barely outside his department's jurisdiction, a municipal area that encompasses Bannister's home.

Cummings wrote that he observed Bannister exit the cafe about 8 p.m. and drive toward Lilburn on Indian Trail Road. After witnessing Bannister's alleged erratic driving, the deputy pulled him over near Sandra Drive.

"As the driver was handing me his license, I could smell a strong odor of alcohol coming from his breath," Cummings wrote. "I noticed that his eyes were glazed and when he spoke he mumbled."

Cummings then administered three sobriety tests. In the first, he asked Bannister to run through the alphabet, beginning with the letter "D" and ending with "R", the report says.

"When he got to the letter 'G' he began to omit letters and tried singing the rest of the alphabet real fast," the report states.

Bannister then wobbled in a "walk and turn" test and stumbled in a final test requiring him to keep one foot off the ground, prompting Cummings to arrest him, the report says.

Benson also observed Bannister fail the tests, he wrote in the separate report.

At the jail, Bannister told deputies he couldn't "believe this is all over one or two beers," before a jail employee administered the breath test, Cummings wrote.

When the results returned ".000" Cummings radioed for a blood test kit because "the results of the breath test (were) inconsistent with someone who had drunk a beer, as he admitted to," the report says.

Richard S. Lawson, a Lawrenceville attorney specializing in DUI cases, said laws don't require DUI suspects be detained for any certain time before being released, provided they can post bond. The charge is a felony only when a defendant has a history of three DUIs or more.

Driver's licenses for DUI suspects are conditionally revoked only if their blood-alcohol content exceeds .08 percent or they refuse a Breathalyzer, Lawson said.

Lawson said the idea of breath tests malfunctioning isn't unheard of.

"It certainly can malfunction. Every machine is different," he said. "As to how common it is, I don't know."

Bannister's blood sample was refrigerated in an evidence room for transport to the GBI crime lab in Decatur, as is protocol.

The lab has a backlog of less than 50 cases statewide involving blood-alcohol testing, and the average turnaround time is between 25 and 30 days, according to GBI crime lab director Dr. George Herrin.

The lab has completed about 5,000 blood-alcohol reports related to Georgia DUI cases in the last year, Herrin said.