Conflicting Evidence in Gwinnett Commission Chair's DUI Arrest

11:24 PM, Jun 29, 2010   |    comments
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Video: Conflicting Evidence In DUI Arrest

  • Charles Bannister arrested for DUI in a county-issued car.
  • Gwinnett County Commission Chair Charles Bannister
  • On Tuesday, Bannister released the results of his breath test, showing he had a blood alcohol level of .000.
    

GWINNETT COUNTY, GA -- There appears to be conflicting evidence in the DUI arrest of Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charles Bannister, and both sides are now scrambling to make their case.

Bannister has apologized after his arrest on charges of driving under the influence in a county-issued car, but he claims he's innocent.

He was in no mood to talk when he walked out of the Gwinnett County Jail just after 11 p.m. Monday, but he issued a statement Tuesday.

"I apologize to the residents of Gwinnett County, my colleagues, and my family for any embarrassment this has caused," he said in the statement. "I regret that this matter has occured." Bannister does not, however, admit any wrongdoing.

"In the end, I am confident I will be completely exonerated," he said.

According to Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department Spokesperson, Stacey Bourbonnais and the arresting officer's incident report, which was obtained by 11Alive News, someone at Cafe Hot Wing in Lilburn called in Monday night to say Bannister might have consumed too much alcohol to be driving.

A sheriff's deputy was dispatched to the scene and reportedly observed Bannister in his county vehicle, a black Ford Crown Victoria, making an improper lane change.

"The vehicle made an abrupt lane change without signaling from the right lane to the left lane," Deputy M.J. Cummings wrote in the incident report. "In doing so, a vehicle in the left lane had to jam on his brakes suddenly to avoid striking the rear of the defendant's vehicle."

Deputy Cummings pulled Bannister over and noted in his report, "As the driver was handing me his license, I could smell a strong odor of alcohol coming from his breath...I noticed that his eyes were glazed and when he spoke, he mumbled as he talked."

The report says Bannister told the officer he had one beer and agreed to a field sobriety test, but had trouble reciting the alphabet. "When he got to G, he began to omit letters and tried singing the rest of the alphabet real fast," Deputy Cummings wrote in the report. He also noted that Bannister had trouble walking in a straight line; "He swayed back and forth." Partway through one test, the deputy noted "[Bannister] no longer could keep his balance, and I had him stop the test for his safety."

Deputy Cummings arrested Bannister for driving under the influence and gave him two breath tests, both of which showed a .000 blood alcohol level. 

Bannister stressed those results in his statement Tuesday. "I am making the results of the state-administered breath test results public which indicates that the machine was working properly and the test results were 0, which indicates no presence of alcohol in my system."

Deputy Cummings noted in his report that Bannister's behavior was "inconsistent with someone who had drunk one beer," so he also asked for a blood test, which was conducted at Gwinnett Medical Center and will be processed by the GBI.

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway is standing by his deputy's decisions. "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," Sheriff Conway said in a statement. "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."

The Sheriff released a supplemental report claiming that witnesses at the restaurant saw Bannister drinking 3 or 4 beers and not just the one he'd claimed.

The report says they also recovered Bannister's credit card receipt, which showed he bought one diet coke, five draft beers and one half pitcher of beer at the table he was sharing with two other men.

But in an exclusive interview with 11Alive's Paul Crawley, Bannister's attorney questioned whether the case might be politically motivated.

"After that Intox 5000 showed that he had no alcohol in his system, he should have been released right there," said attorney Alan Mullinax.

He also called several aspects of the care suspicious, like why the restaurant caller phoned an individual in the sheriff's office and not 911, and why the deputy did not contact Lilburn Police since the incident happened in their city limits, but made the DUI case himself, which is rare for the sheriff's office.

Bannister's attorney also accused the arresting deputy of not doing some standard sobriety tests, like using a hand-held breath meter at the scene and why he made Bannister perform tests not recommended for someone his client's age.

"This is a 71-year-old man," Mullinax added, "and these tests are not recommended for people over 55-years old."

Mullinax says he wants a copy of his client's blood test to confirm that it is, in fact, Bannister's blood and hasn't been tampered with.

He said they also did their own blood test, which hasn't been analyzed yet either.

"Right now the sheriff's department has found themselves in a very unfortunate situation, a very compromised situation as to why they were involved in this to begin with," Mullinax said.

"The integrity of the sheriff's department has got to be considered as far as this investigation as to whether or not this is politically motivated," he added.

In addition to the DUI charge, Bannister also faces a traffic violation charge. He did not, however, have to put up money or property to post bond Monday night. Instead, his own signature was enough to guarantee he would show up in court.

"Until this matter is resolved, I will not drive any county vehicles but will continue to perform my duties as county commission chairman," Bannister said in his written statement. Gwinnett County has a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol consumption while operating county vehicles. 

Bannister has two years left in his second term as county commissioner chair.

He made headlines recently with the passage of a controversial trash plan in Gwinnett County.

He's also facing a special grand jury investigation involving some land deals.

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