A Sussex County judge dismissed charges against former ABC political correspondent Sam Donaldson, who last year was arrested in Lewes and charged with driving drunk.
Judge Rosemary Beauregard said the arresting officer’s report was incomplete and a failed sobriety test was improperly administered.
Donaldson appeared Nov. 8 in a nearly empty Sussex County courtroom. The state would call only one witness – arresting officer Katie Couchman of Lewes Police Department.
Couchman testified she stopped Donaldson about 8 p.m., Dec. 1, 2012, because he was driving on the shoulder of the road, to the right of the westbound lane.
“It raised alarm,” she said.
Couchman said she stopped Donaldson near the railroad tracks, and when she approached his grey Ford Expedition, she smelled alcohol. “It was a medium odor until we engaged in conversation, and then it became a strong odor,” she said. “His eyes were bloodshot and they were glassy.”
Couchman said she asked Donaldson why he was not driving in the roadway. “He stated that he thought he was,” she testified. “He appeared to be confused and disoriented.”
Couchman said Donaldson admitted he drank a few glasses of wine at The Buttery before heading out in his car. She said she noticed a corked bottle of wine peeping out of a brown paper bag in Donaldson’s passenger seat.
Donaldson also said he’d been to Beebe Healthcare earlier because his girlfriend broke her hip after a bike ride, Couchman said. “He stated that he was lost,” she said.
Couchman said Donaldson failed several verbal and physical field sobriety tests, including walking heel-to-toe in a straight line and standing on one leg. “He was stepping off the line, and he was tripping over his own feet,” she said.
Couchman said she instructed Donaldson to blow into a portable breath test device before she arrested him.
Couchman said her report shows she administered the Breathalyzer 25 minutes after she stopped Donaldson. It also shows Donaldson was arrested five minutes before the test was given. She said the time of the arrest was a typographical error.
Donaldson attorney Eric Mooney said the breath test must be given at least 15 minutes after a suspect is stopped to yield accurate results. According to reports from the county police dispatch center, Couchman waited only 12 minutes, he said.
“There could not have been the 15-minute waiting period,” Mooney argued. “That test should not be considered.”
“The defendant was given the proper amount of time,” Couchman said.
Beauregard ruled the results of the breath test were not admissible as evidence. “The state hasn’t come close to laying a foundation,” she said.
Mooney also argued Coachman’s police report did not include certain parts of her testimony. Donaldson’s admission of imbibing and the open container of wine were not in the police report, Mooney said.
“The report was not completed the night of the arrest,” Couchman said.
Mooney approached the witness stand to give Couchman a copy of a police training manual, which stated suspects over the age of 65 often have difficulty completing field sobriety tests even when sober. Donaldson was 78 at the time of the arrest.
Couchman said she had not considered his age. “He appeared to be in good physical shape,” she said.
Mooney said Donaldson reasonably thought he was driving in the roadway because there is no signage or merge lane to indicate the paved shoulder is not another traffic lane.
“You have inconsistencies throughout the report,” he said. “The state has not sustained its burden of establishing probable cause for the arrest.”
State’s attorney Martin Cosgrove argued, “While undocumented, there was an admission of drinking.”
Cosgrove said Donaldson’s poor performance on the verbal sobriety test should be cause to arrest him for a DUI. His poor performance on the physical sobriety tests should be given some weight, “considering Mr. Donaldson’s good appearance,” Cosgrove said.
While Donaldson’s driving provided Couchman a reason to stop his car, Beauregard said, “I simply do not find there is enough to find probable cause.”
The roadway is not clearly marked, and Donaldson was not driving erratically, the judge said.
Beauregard said Donaldson admitted he was confused when he told the officer he was lost. What Couchman called a poor performance on the verbal sobriety tests, Beauregard said, she would call a moderate performance.
Beauregard said the fact that physical sobriety tests were given to a 78-year-old makes the results erroneous. “These tests are not reliable …in cases where they are administered to someone 65 or older,” she said.
Beauregard also said Couchman failed to include essential information in her report, including the presence of an open container of alcohol. “How it was not recorded in the alcohol influence report is a bit concerning to the court,” she said. The arrest occurred 10 months ago, Beauregard said, “And certainly memories can fade.”
Beauregard said the confusion over the time between the arrest and the breath test, the inconsistencies in the police report and the absence of important facts make the report an unreliable piece of evidence.
Donaldson appeared relaxed throughout the proceedings. During a break, he sat in the gallery, chatting and joking with three young women. After the judgment was issued, he walked immediately to the prosecution table and told Couchman he bore her no animosity. “You did your duty as you saw it,” he told her.
He also shook hands with Cosgrove. Outside the courtroom, he commended both attorneys on a job well done.
Donaldson said he does not feel like he got away with committing a crime, and he does not condone driving drunk. “I didn’t believe I was intoxicated or over the legal limit,” he said.
“I’m clearly happy it turned out this way,” Donaldson said of the verdict. “I’ve never been a defendant in a case before.”