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Getting the sergeant off the road

  • By Charles Pelkey
  • Published Jun. 10, 2010
  • Updated Jun. 10, 2010 at 10:42 AM EDT

Dear Explainer,
It’s been more than a year since our fellow cyclist Kevin Flock died in Virginia. I appreciate how you followed the case and recall that the driver not only got off lightly, but was then arrested on other – completely unrelated – charges a few days later.

Any news on the guy who should probably be the poster boy of bad drivers?
Dennis Johnson
Highland Park, Illinois

Dear Dennis,
There is news and it slipped through the cracks here, given that we all got caught up in the Giro d’Italia, the Floyd Landis case and preparations to cover the Tour de France, which begins on July 3.

Sergeant Aaron Trey Stapleton, a recruiter for the Virginia National Guard, was indeed charged with several violations in connection with a night spent drinking with friends on January 16 of this year. Just four days earlier, Stapleton had been convicted of “improper driving” in connection with Flock’s death and was fined $500.

Stapleton went to trial last month on charges that included hit-and-run, carrying a concealed weapon, refusal to take a blood or breathalyzer sobriety test and driving while intoxicated.

According to trial testimony, Stapleton drove his SUV into a steel and concrete pole at a gas station, the sort used to protect gas pumps from careless — and intoxicated — drivers. He apparently struck the pole hard enough to break it, rip the fender off of his vehicle and damage the front wheel badly enough to render the SUV inoperable. The attendant spoke with him and said that while he did not smell alcohol on his breath, Stapleton appeared to be under the influence. Stapleton apparently pleaded with the attendant not to call police and then ran when it became clear that a report would have to be filed.

A police officer called to the scene soon discovered Stapleton wedged under a large propane tank behind a fenced-in area not far from the gas station. He and another officer described Stapleton as being “highly intoxicated.” They handcuffed him and then took him back to the scene of the accident, where they found a handgun in the glove box of the SUV. He did not have a concealed-weapons permit.

‘Come on guys, I’m hammered’

While Stapleton declined to take a blood alcohol test, he did undergo a field sobriety test – you know the nifty stand-on-one-leg-and-count-backwards-from-100 sort of thing. He failed that part and then pleaded with police to excuse his inability to carry out the test, saying, “Come on, guys, I’m hammered.”

Stapleton also reminded officers that he was a military recruiter and then denied driving the SUV that night, suggesting that it was his passenger that had actually knocked down the pole. Apparently that didn’t convince the police of his innocence any more than the affirmative defenses of “hey, I’m an Army recruiter” or “Come on, guys, I’m hammered.” Go figure.

Well, long story short, Stapleton didn’t make a good impression in court, either. While prior bad acts can only be introduced as evidence in a criminal trial under narrow circumstances, a judge faces no such limitation when considering sentencing.

Presiding Judge Sage B. Johnson considered the fact that this was Stapleton’s second DUI and said that he would normally sentence someone to 180 days in jail, with 160 of those suspended, impose a $750 fine and revoke the defendant’s driver’s license for three years. Stapleton, however, was an exception, said the judge.

Noting that he had been on trial for accident involving a fatality just days before the incident, and that Stapleton had repeatedly appeared in court on other driving-related offenses, Johnson said he found it necessary to impose a tougher penalty.

Between the second DUI conviction and his refusal to submit to a breathalyzer Stapleton was sentenced to 455 days in jail, of which 355 were suspended. So, pending the outcome of his appeal, Stapleton will probably face 100 days behind bars. He was also fined $2,000 and ordered to pay $625 in restitution. The judge also ordered that his driver’s license be suspended for six years. He will be able to apply for a restricted license after three years and three months.

An Army of one?

Stapleton’s behavior, it seems, has also been the source of some embarrassment to the Virginia National Guard and he has been removed from his position as a recruiter. His authorization to drive government vehicles had already been revoked following his improper driving conviction in the Flock case. 

Stapleton is still a member of the Guard, although he is no longer serving as the very public face of that fine organization.

So there you have it, Dennis. The appellate process is not all that speedy, so the final chapter in the tale won’t be written for a while. I like your characterization of Stapleton as the “poster boy of bad drivers” and, in a sense, that’s probably why I’ve picked him as an example of the sort of dangers all of us face out on the road, whether we’re pedestrians, cyclists, other drivers or even just an innocent concrete-and-steel pillar.

Look at the record

His case is also a fine example of why some prior bad acts should be admissible in traffic cases involving bodily harm or death. Hear me out on this one. I understand and appreciate the rules of evidence barring the introduction of some past wrong doings in a criminal trial.

As noted by the Federal Rules of Evidence — a model by which most states construct their own rules — “Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith.”

A prosecutor cannot, for example, show that a driver has a propensity to be a complete dip when behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. The rules themselves, however, offer exceptions to that rule, allowing a prosecutor to introduce a record of charges and convictions to show “motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident.”

And it’s that last element, “absence of mistake or accident,” that, under ideal circumstances, could have allowed Stapleton’s driving record — including the first DUI and a reckless-driving charge — to have been heard by the jury in the Flock case. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always pass muster.

Personally, I think any time a driver who kills or injures someone and then claims the incident was “an accident” should have his past driving record thoroughly examined by the finders of fact in a resulting criminal trial to weigh the merits of that “accident” defense. A record of negligent and reckless behavior behind the wheel isn’t so much evidence of a “propensity” as it is a refutation of the incident being of the sort that could happen to anyone, even someone who meets the model “reasonable driver” standard.

Of course, we might all appreciate the fact that at least one bad driver – the poster boy as far as we’re concerned – will be off the road for at least a few years.

Meanwhile, might we recommend a nice bicycle for you, Sarge?
Charles


Email Charles Pelkey

“The Explainer” is a regular feature on VeloNews.com. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling that our editors might be able to answer, feel free to send your query to WebLetters@CompetitorGroup.com and we’ll take a stab at answering. Not all letters will be published and some questions may be combined with those of other readers. Please include your full name and hometown.

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