12/19/06 — Officials explain deputy's sentence

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Officials explain deputy's sentence

By Lee Williams
Published in News on December 19, 2006 1:45 PM

Wayne County's commissioners were expected to discuss today if the county will attempt to recoup the loss from a former sheriff's deputy who totaled his car while driving it outside the county without permission.

Meanwhile, court officials are defending their decision to allow the deputy, who was charged with driving while intoxicated, to plead to a lesser offense, saying his punishment was based on the law, not preferential treatment.

Commission chairman John M. Bell said he will broach the subject at the commission's meeting today regarding the car damaged by former Deputy Matt Sasser in Princeton Sept. 12.

Sasser, 23, of LaGrange, had just got off work in Eureka and went to visit his friend, Trooper Matthew Holloman. Sasser was off-duty, but still in uniform and did not have permission to drive his patrol car outside the county unless assisting other law enforcement agencies, officials said. He later crashed the car and abandoned it, returning later. A passer-by spotted the vehicle and reported the incident.

A blood sample taken more than five hours after the accident revealed Sasser's blood alcohol level was .08 percent, the level at which drivers in North Carolina are considered impaired.

Sasser was charged with DWI and Sheriff Carey Winders fired him from his position.

Damages to the car were set at $8,500, according to the Highway Patrol report. The county paid a $1,000 deductible and the county's insurance company paid out about $10,500 for the car.

It costs $21,000 to $23,000 to replace the damaged patrol car with a brand new one, Winders said. Based on rough estimates, the accident has left the county with a net loss of about $13,500. A new car has already been placed into service, Winders said.

Bell realizes the county loss and his duty to keep watch over the taxpayers' money and that's why he decided to address the matter. Bell said he wanted to send a message to other county employees: "You can't just tear up the equipment."

The matter of restitution was not addressed during Sasser's court hearing held Dec. 8 in Benson.

Despite the county's loss, Sasser was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of unsafe movement, Johnston County Assistant District Attorney Dale Stubbs said.

Johnston County District Court Judge Edward J. McCormick ordered Sasser to pay $110 court costs. No probation, community service, restitution or jail time was imposed.

Attorney Jack O'Hale of Smithfield represented Sasser. If convicted of DWI, Sasser could have lost his driver's license and faced up to a maximum of two months in jail. A DWI conviction also could have damaged his career.

As news of the plea agreement spread, rumors Sasser received special treatment began to circulate.

Stubbs, McCormick and Master Trooper J.J. Creech who investigated the accident, strongly denied that allegation.

McCormick, who took the plea, said he didn't recall anyone telling him in open court the defendant was a former law enforcement officer. He said even if they did, he can't say it would have had any bearing on the case.

"I would have remembered that, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't have approved it," said McCormick when reached at his Lillington home. "It depends on the facts."

Creech said he holds law enforcement officials to a higher standard and on the day he placed Sasser under arrest, he treated him like he would any other citizen. He resented the implication he would do otherwise and fail to charge him for other alleged crimes such as damage to government property, leaving the scene of an accident, in addition to DWI.

Creech said he would not debate the facts of the case.

"I rendered a fair and impartial decision on that day," Creech said. "I treated him like the milkman or a construction worker."

Creech said he has been an honest law enforcement officer for 30 years and he is fair to everyone. Creech said Sasser wore a badge and that's why people are focusing on this matter.

"He's an easy target," Creech said. "Let's lynch him."

A lack of solid evidence -- not his standing in the community -- played a large factor in the plea agreement, Stubbs said.

Stubbs also added Winders did not have any influence on the case.

"I didn't give him preferential treatment because he was a deputy," Stubbs said. "I just looked at the case and made a decision based on the facts and the law and what I thought would be inadmissible evidence."

Winders also stated he had no influence on the case.

"We handled our part," Winders said. "He was terminated immediately from the job. As far as the court system, it was handled by another judicial system, and we did not have any input."

Stubbs explained the case had flaws because the trooper never saw him drive the automobile. The breathalyzer was administered five hours after the accident and Sasser did not make a statement to the trooper until his superior, a major, took him to the side.

"I don't think it was a voluntary statement," Stubbs said.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision Garrity v. New Jersey rendered such statements are inadmissible, Stubbs said.

Stubbs, who has more than 22 years of legal experience, did not feel he had a winnable cause, which set the stage for the plea.

"You have to prove he had .08 or more at a relevant time before or after the driving," Stubbs said. "If you can't prove he didn't drink after the driving your out of court. You don't have a case."

Stubbs said restitution is generally not ordered in an accident case.

"The sheriff can do something about that if he wants to," Stubbs said. "We generally don't give restitution on wreck cases. There's a civil action for that. The sheriff's office has actions they can take against the defendant on their own."

Winders said the matter of pursuing restitution will be made by another party.

"As far as any restitution, that would be up to the county manager and the insurance company to make that determination to pursue or not," the sheriff said.