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Published: Wednesday, 10/6/2004

Friend's DUI pits island's solicitor against police

BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

To Kelleys Island police Chief Ronald Schnittker, the footage of a motorist pulled over for suspected drunken driving shows someone who seems impaired.

"On the walk-and-turn test, he had his arms raised higher than what they're supposed to be, stepping off the line and things like that," Chief Schnittker said, discussing a videotape of the Sept. 25 traffic stop. "On the one-legged stand, you're supposed to be able to stand there for a 30-count, and you can see him hopping around with his arms out, trying to keep his balance."

But village solicitor David Lambros saw something else when he watched the tape of his friend, Joel Sacco of Bentleyville, Ohio. The solicitor told police he'd throw out a drunken-driving charge if they filed one, Chief Schnittker said yesterday.

"He said if we charged him, he would dismiss the charge," the chief said.

The solicitor has withdrawn from the case, and Mr. Sacco is charged with operating a vehicle under the influence, a first-degree misdemeanor, failing to drive within marked lanes and failing to illuminate a license plate.

"I didn't dismiss the charge," Mr. Lambros said yesterday. "I didn't try to dismiss the charge. That's the point. I immediately told the police officer I would appoint a special prosecutor."

Mr. Sacco, 48, who works in the Cuyahoga County auditor's office, was stopped at 1:29 a.m. that Saturday by Officer Thomas Saccenti, a police report states.

The officer smelled alcohol on Mr. Sacco, had him take the field sobriety test, and then took him to the police station. On the way, Mr. Sacco told Officer Saccenti he was good friends with Mayor Rob Quinn and Mr. Lambros, the report states. Mr. Sacco was allowed to call Mr. Lambros, said Chief Schnittker, who was working the desk that night.

Mr. Lambros returned a message from Mr. Sacco later and spoke with Officer Saccenti. "The solicitor basically told the officer, 'Hold off on issuing a citation, I've known this guy for 20 years,'‚óŹ'' the chief said.

Mr. Sacco declined to take a Breathalyzer test and went to an island home, where he spoke by phone to Mr. Lambros for about 20 minutes, the chief said.

The next morning, the solicitor arrived and reviewed the videotape of the sobriety test.

"He felt by talking to him that his speech wasn't slurred, and he didn't feel it warranted him being charged with OVI [operating a vehicle under the influence]," Chief Schnittker said. "He just felt there wasn't enough evidence that he could convict him."

Asked if someone could judge a person's sobriety over the phone, the chief replied, "I don't know how they really could, because over the years of my experience, I've brought in people talking what I think to be fairly clear speech, and they'll fail the field sobriety and then test over the legal limit."

At Chief Schnittker's instruction, Officer Saccenti issued an OVI citation to Mr. Sacco on Sept. 26 and informed Mr. Lambros by phone. The solicitor told him again he would dismiss the charge, the police report states.

Mr. Lambros said he simply expressed his belief that Mr. Sacco should not be charged.

"That was my opinion, but they're welcome to have a different opinion," he said. "I defer to the police officer who felt he should be charged."

Chief Schnittker said he told the officer to charge Mr. Sacco after consulting with Erie County Prosecutor Kevin Baxter. Mr. Sacco's Oct. 11 hearing in mayor's court has been continued. He could not be reached for comment.

Contact Steve Murphy at:

smurphy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6078



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