0

Lawyer: County chair not impaired

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Chairman Charles Bannister's attorney said his defense against charges of DUI from an incident Monday is easy: he wasn't impaired.

Alan Mullinax, a Lawrenceville attorney who often handles family law and DUI cases, said there are several inconsistencies in the report of a sheriff's deputy who pulled Bannister over Monday.

"The defense is an easy defense," said Mullinax, speaking for Bannister. "The circumstances surrounding the stop and arrest are raising a lot of red flags, not just for me as an attorney but for the general public. ... People see something is just not right."

First, deputies are rarely involved in such cases and were only at the scene because a patron at Cafe Hot Wing called an off-duty deputy directly about the chairman's drinking.

While Mullinax said he did not want to call the situation political -- despite a known animosity between Sheriff Butch Conway and Bannister -- he said everything from the reasoning for pulling over the chairman to the statements in the report could be called into question.

In the arrest report, Deputy M.G. Cummings described Bannister driving his county-issued Crown Victoria erratically, but Mullinax pointed out that the chairman does not face counts of reckless driving or failure to maintain a lane. Instead, the only charge that brought probable cause for the stop was failure to use a turn signal.

During the stop itself, Mullinax said two key sobriety tests were not performed, including an Alco-Sensor, which would have given a reading of alcohol content. Instead, the deputy asked the 71-year-old chairman to perform what Mullinax called a "voodoo test," a walk and turn test that isn't recommended for anyone over 55 because of diminished agility.

In the report, Cummings used words such as "a strong odor of alcohol" and "glazed eyes," but Mullinax said those words are typically used in trying to build a DUI case.

And he called the deputy's questioning of an Intoxilyzer administered 53 minutes after the traffic stop as inconsistent with having a beer, since the time would have easily allowed time for the alcohol to clear the system if it was low concentration at the time of the stop. The breath test gave a reading of zero, and Mullinax said Bannister should have been let go at that point.

Instead, he was put in waist-chains and shackled and taken to Gwinnett Medical Center for a blood test.

Bannister had agreed to the test, but Mullinax said the shackles on an older man, especially considered a suspect in a non-violent crime, was going too far.

Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Stacey Bourbonnais declined to talk about Mullinax's take on the arrest. On Tuesday, Sheriff Conway said he stood behind his deputy.

"Based on the totality of the circumstances -- which include witness statements, restaurant employee statements, the statements of Chairman Bannister, the odor of alcohol on his breath and the failure of the field sobriety tests -- the deputy did not feel that the breath test revealed an accurate reading. He made the decision to get a blood test and to charge him with DUI based on his observations at the scene, at the jail and from the independent witness statements inside the restaurant," Conway said.

After Bannister's release from jail, he participated in an independent blood test, which should be completed soon.

While it was taken hours after the first one, Mullinax said he wanted to have the results to be able to compare DNA to the sample taken to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab to be sure it wasn't tampered with.

"I want an honest blood test. I don't want that test compromised in any way," the attorney said. "I'm confident, if that blood isn't compromised, it will come up just like the breath test. ... The only thing that should be found is the chairman's blood pressure medication."

Officials expect the blood sent to the GBI to take a month to test.

Despite the strange circumstances and the political feud between the sheriff and the chairman, Mullinax said, "I don't see Butch Conway's fingerprints on this."

"I don't want to inject politics in this," he said. "I think we have a deputy who made a bad decision and some bad choices to target someone. ... He's the one that has to be held accountable."

Mullinax said the chairman, who has declined to talk about the incident, has kept in good spirits about the ordeal, but he thinks the politician was treated badly.

"That's a public humiliation," he said. "This is unusual facts and an unusual case. This DUI (allegation) should have ended at the Gwinnett County Jail. (To continue after the zero reading on the breath test), that's unheard of."