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Published: Tuesday, 3/19/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Prosecutor given 5-day suspension in firefighter crash

Drunken-driving charge dismissed

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Ron Hurst, from Merritt Construction, works on the Boyd's Retro Candy Store after a car crashed into the store. Ron Hurst, from Merritt Construction, works on the Boyd's Retro Candy Store after a car crashed into the store.
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The city prosecutor who last week dismissed a drunken-driving charge against a Toledo firefighter was suspended without pay for five days because he gave the appearance of impropriety even though there was no evidence that he intentionally gave a break to the firefighter, according to a record obtained by The Blade.

Todd Steele, a 17-year firefighter, was eastbound on Sylvania Avenue on Jan. 14 when he lost control at Phillips Avenue and struck a flagpole, a stone monument, a fire hydrant, and a traffic-control box. The monument and hydrant flew through the air and smashed into a large stone support pillar at Boyd's Retro Candy Store, 954 Phillips.

The prosecutor on the case, Scott Kunzler, did not have Mr. Steele's blood-alcohol level from the Jan. 14 crash because he refused to take a test. But the Toledo police report on the incident stated that even though Mr. Steele refused to take a blood-alcohol test, officers charged him with drunk driving and reckless operation.

Refusing the test normally results in an automatic, one-year driver's license suspension but Mr. Steele's driving privileges are intact, Law Director Adam Loukx said.

Court records show an administrative license suspension was vacated on Feb. 1.

Mr. Kunzler was suspended for five days after he dismissed the drunken-driving charge and Mr. Steele then pleaded no contest to reckless operation, resulting in a $50 fine and court costs. The case involving the city firefighter was one of about 60 cases Mr. Kunzler was assigned that day.

Mr. Loukx, in a letter to Mr. Kunzler detailing the suspension, said the dismissal was the result of bad judgment.

“Your actions caused the law department, the fire department, the police department, and most importantly, the sitting judge of the Toledo Municipal Court, to be subjected to public criticism and potential embarrassment,” the March 14 letter said.

Mr. Loukx said Mr. Kunzler is otherwise a good prosecutor.

“I was simply dissatisfied with the efforts of a very good prosecutor on a case,” he said Monday. “I thought that the actions he took were uncharacteristic and inadequate for the law department standards.”

Mr. Steele’s case did not include a finding of restitution, Mr. Loukx said.

Mr. Kunzler declined to comment Monday, and Mr. Steele could not be reached for comment.

Pleading down charges in Municipal Court is common, but that is not usually the case for first-degree misdemeanors unless there are problems with the evidence. The drunken-driving charge that Mr. Steele faced is a first-degree misdemeanor, the most serious kind handled in Municipal Court.

Dropping the driving while under the influence of alcohol charge was a surprise to Councilman D. Michael Collins, a former police officer.

“While plea bargaining is a common occurrence in Toledo Municipal Court, plea bargaining on an OVI is very rare and, generally speaking, the only reason would be if the city has evidentiary issues they may not be able to overcome,” Mr. Collins said.

Pam Lloyd-Camp, an owner of the damaged candy store, said she was also surprised with the outcome.

She provided video footage that showed part of the crash and property damage.

“In court, his lawyer said he wasn't drunk, that he was asleep,” Ms. Lloyd-Camp said. “The prosecutor said there was no [blood-alcohol] test done so he had no proof that he was drunk.”

Mr. Steele has a number of charges that had been filed against him in Toledo Municipal Court in recent years.

Aggravated menacing and obstructing official business were both dismissed on Feb. 2, 2010. He was found guilty of disorderly conduct by fighting, threatening harm or in violent or turbulent behavior that same day. That charge was amended from domestic violence.

A charge of disrupting public service transportation was dismissed on Aug. 1, 2008.

In August, 2007, he was found guilty of reckless operation.

Toledo fire Chief Luis Santiago said firefighters would be held accountable if internal investigations find someone guilty. The fire department on Monday did not respond to a request to provide public records related to its internal investigation into Mr. Steele and several other firefighters.

Paul Heiss, a 10-year veteran of the fire department, is charged with numerous traffic offenses, including driving while intoxicated and failure to stop after an accident on West Sylvania Avenue near Douglas Road.

According to a police report, he is accused of rear-ending one vehicle on Dec. 30 and then backing into another vehicle before fleeing. A pretrial hearing in that case is scheduled for April 10.

Neither Mr. Heiss nor Mr. Steele were placed on administrative leave during the department investigations.

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com,

or 419-724-6171.



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