Honolulu DUI cases prone to ‘catch and release’

A lucky break. That’s how a judge described the dismissal of a drunk driving charge against a state sheriff.

But Always Investigating found out the sheriff wasn’t the only one who got lucky. Hundreds of suspected drunk drivers are walking away with no punishment. It takes up a lot of court time, while often getting nowhere.

The sheriff’s dismissed case illustrates what’s happening. Back in 2008, Patrick Lewis was honored for stopping millions in dollars in drug trafficking.

But a police report from the night of Oct. 2, 2013, described how Lewis found himself on the other side of the law–and the wrong side of the road–just after 2 a.m. in Pearl City.

Police documented that Lewis slammed his state K-9 truck through a center median along Kamehameha Highway, knocked down 40 feet of fence, spun around in the opposite direction, struck the curb then finally stopped. No animal was on board at the time.

Police found Lewis in the driver’s seat. A policeman wrote that Lewis smelled alcohol and told police he “had two glasses of wine” and “fell asleep.” A field sobriety test gave clues of impairment and Lewis was placed under arrest and charged with OVUII, or drunk driving. He pleaded not guilty.

His day in court came in December 2013 at the Ewa District courthouse. The case was continued because the officer was out sick.

In February 2014, the officer was sworn in, but the hearing was rescheduled again. In April, the deputy prosecutor was out injured, prompted yet another continuance. In June, the same deputy prosecutor was out again, and this time, both HPD officers were not present.

Here is part of the court transcript that day:

Deputy prosecutor: “Your honor, the state is not ready, (the) prosecutor is not present today and in addition, both our officers, I have been informed, were injured. So we’ll be asking for further continuance of the trial for approximately three months.”

Defense attorney: “We’ve been back now multiple times for this case, and in the interest of justice we’re asking for this case to be dismissed today.”

Judge: “Mr. Lewis, you got lucky in this case. Please take care. Don’t come back. Good luck to you.”

Lewis’ defense attorney, Paul Cunney, points out that court rules protect against cases dragging on and because it was more than six months old, the court was within its power to dismiss the case.

Lewis’ case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning prosecutors had no chance to re-file the charge.

The sheriff even got his driver’s license back ahead of time from the Administrative Driver’s License Revocation Office (ADLRO). Lewis had refused breath and blood tests the day of the accident, and on a first offense, that’s supposed to get your license revoked two years. But the records at ADLRO showed the police witnesses were no-shows three hearings in a row, and after all those continuances, Lewis got his license right back.

“When you have higher profile arrests like a sheriff, like a public official, and they get dismissed with prejudice, it ends in a dismissal that can’t be retouched. What kind of message do those kind of high-profile cases send?” Always Investigating asked anti-drunk-driving advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“I suppose the public at that point gets very frustrated,” said Arkie Koehl, chairman of the MADD public policy committee, “and they wonder what’s happening with all the low-profile cases out there.”

So Always Investigating checked out more than 3,500 drunk driving cases and found, out of that number, more than 400 people just last year who, like the sheriff, got their cases dismissed for good.

Hundreds more were dismissed without prejudice, meaning the prosecutors could re-file. In all, more than one in four DUI charges ended in dismissals for one reason or another.

“In this particular jurisdiction, we have a very frustrating pattern of catch-and-release of DUI offenders,” Koehl said. “There is, in fact, a pattern of dismissals, and it’s extremely frustrating and we’ve known about it for years. It’s especially prevalent in the Honolulu District Court. We’ve been frustrated over this for years but you, Gina, have brought it up to us and to the public.”

“As many people are probably aware, our judicial system is driven by the litigants,” explained Rep. Karl Rhoads, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “Of course, for the defense attorneys, it is always in their interest to delay things, because things go wrong the longer you stretch things out. For the prosecutors, it can be difficult getting your ducks in a row, getting whoever your witnesses are (who are often police officers) in there on the days they need to be there.”

“I think there would have to be a lot more cooperation between police, prosecutors and a lot more vigilance,” Koehl said.

A spokeswoman with the Honolulu Police Department said the department takes being in court seriously and officers face disciplinary action for not appearing, first with a written warning and then, if it happens again, a one-day suspension.

Dave Koga, spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, said in a statement that “prosecutors continue to provide timely notification to all witnesses of upcoming court dates.”

As for Sheriff Lewis, nearly a year-and-a-half after the crash and following case dismissal, the Department of Public Safety says his case is still under internal investigation for any potential workplace discipline. They say he has not since been re-issued a vehicle.

Public Safety has internally disciplined four staff members in the past five years in DUI-related cases.

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