MIDDLETOWN, Ohio – A Middletown prosecutor said Thursday she didn't do anything out of the ordinary when she reduced drunk driving charges facing a former Oxford Township police officer who admitted he had been drinking when he was pulled over last weekend.
Ashley Bretland agreed to lower the operating a vehicle under the influence (OVI) charge facing 30-year-old Joseph Suttles to reckless operation —and a judge signed off on her recommendation to give him his license back—despite the fact that the former police officer refused to take a breath test intended to measure alcohol content.
Bretland said she made her decision to reduce Suttles’ charge not because he was a cop, but because he hadn’t been pulled over for driving drunk before. It's a decision she said she often makes.
“With no priors and no egregious circumstances, I didn’t do anything differently on this case than I would on any similar case. There was no consideration that he was a police officer. He didn’t get preferential treatment,” Bretland said.
In Ohio, an OVI charge is a first-degree misdemeanor that occurs when someone is driving with a blood alcohol content over the legal limit of .08 percent. A reckless operation charge is a minor misdemeanor and does not carry the same mandatory penalties as an OVI charge, like jail time or a driver's license suspension.
Bretland said she commonly reduces drunk driving charges to reckless operation when a person is pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving for the first time—a philosophy that she declined to discuss.
She said she makes her decision on a case-by-case basis, but always considers the blood alcohol content level in each circumstance.
But in the Suttles' case there was no record of his blood alcohol content level because he refused to take the breath test. Bretland would not comment on the factors she considered when reducing Suttles charge, other than the fact that he had no prior offenses.
Trenton police officer Steven Helton arrested Suttles Saturday after Suttles tried to avoid being pulled over near West Roger Road, according to the police report. The officer spotted Suttles’ vehicle because it was missing a light near the license plate. Helton followed the car.
The report details the arrest:
Once pulled over, Suttles got out and had to steady himself on his car.
“While dealing with the driver, I observed the strong odor of an intoxicating beverage coming from his person. The driver…had bloodshot eyes, slurred speech and advised me that he was coming from Mutts Brewery Lounge,” Helton wrote.
Suttles also refused to submit to tests police routinely given drivers suspected of drunken diving, like walking in a straight line.
Suttles was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving and taken to Middletown Jail, where he was released without bond.
While jailed, Suttles refused again to take a breath test. He also refused to sign Helton's OVI ticket.
Under Ohio law, a driver's license is automatically suspended for a year when a driver refuses to submit to tests that indicate blood-alcohol level. The law states that if a first-time offender fails the test, they’ll lose their right to drive anywhere for a minimum of 90 days, spend between three days and six months in jail, and must pay a minimum of $250 in fines.
But Suttles, who pleaded guilty to the reduced charge and resigned from the police department on Monday, only lost his license for about two days.
The judge agreed to terminate his driving suspension after reviewing the case on the lesser charge.
“He’s paying a $250 fine, he’s going to an alcohol intervention program and he’s going to be locked up over a weekend. How is suspending his license going to do anything else?” said Mark Wall, the Middletown judge who heard Suttles’ case in court.
Suttles’ 30-day jail sentence was also suspended.
Wall said he prefers to send reckless driving offenders to a 48-hour intervention course instead of taking away their privilege to drive.
“You want to talk about the license suspension? I think that’s a minor part of that, quit frankly,” he said. “It's easy to pick on the drunk driver. What do we do with the liquor industry? Why don't we have just first-class education for people? Why do we have first class treatment programs?”
He said he doesn’t often question Bretland’s decision to reduce OVI charges unless an accident is involved in the case.
“Whether or not they [reduce a charge] down is up to the prosecutor.
"Maybe the prosecutor shouldn’t have, but she did and I trust her judgment. Period,” the judge said.
'I didn't have all the information'
WCPO showed Wall the police reports, which included that a chase was involved at “a high rate of speed.”
Wall said he never saw the narrative in court.
“I didn’t have all the information when he came in here,” the judge said, adding he received a verbal synopsis of the case on Monday.
Wall said he doesn't know if having the additional details would have changed his decision.
“I might have put a stop to it. Told them to hold it to go talk to them or whatever…maybe I should have in this case,” he said.
But he said it's not unusual to have limited information about the cases before him, given the crowded docket of cases he has to go through on a daily basis.
“We handle between 23,000 and 24,000 cases a year over all. We have very little time. We’re the emergency room of the legal system,” he said. “On Monday, we arraigned people on robbery, child molesting, possession of firearms, heroin, you know?
"That’s what I’m dealing with day in and day out.”
Anti-drunk driving advocates worry that reducing OVI charges and reinstating driving licenses may send the message that people who drink and drive will face only minimum consequences if it's their first time.
Wall said he doesn't think that's a concern.
"[Suttles'] attorney probably did a good job for him with the prosecutors," said Wall. "I don't think it necessarily sends a message that you can run from a police officer, and you can drink and drive."