Witnesses in 3-year-old DUI case wait for justice
DANVILLE — It was supposed to be an evening of fun and relaxation, one last big celebration before family and friends sent their soldiers off to war.
But two Vermilion County residents said a send-off party for an Army National Guard unit being deployed to Afghanistan turned ugly when they saw a man drive through an area filled with party-goers, back over a motorcycle and get taken away in handcuffs.
Shirley Hauger and Chuck Smith, both witnesses to the Sept. 6, 2010, incident, said they were relieved when they learned the man — Luke A. Anderson, now 48, of Catlin — was charged in Vermilion County Circuit Court with driving under the influence.
However, they're frustrated that nearly three years later, the case is still pending, and Anderson has received another DUI citation since then.
"It really upsets me," said Smith, an Alvin resident and Navy veteran. "This was a good thing being done by good-hearted folks for our people in the military, and the whole thing turned ugly when this guy did this. Now, it's being made a mockery of by the state's attorney's office. I think it's disrespectful to the soldiers, the people who threw the party and the citizens of Vermilion County who expect justice."
Vermilion County State's Attorney Randy Brinegar acknowledged that the traffic case should have been resolved by now. He added that the long delay highlights a couple of challenges in his office — not enough staff to handle the large volume of misdemeanor and traffic cases and a high turnover of prosecutors in that division.
"We're not trying to sweep it under the rug," Brinegar insisted. "The reality is the misdemeanor and traffic division has about 1,000 cases and over 300 DUI cases a year, and there are two attorneys and one judge to deal with all of them. Because of the sheer number of cases and the turnover in that division, there is a backlog."
Hauger hosted the party for her sister-in-law's military unit from Paris and members' families at her home north of Danville on Labor Day 2010. She hired security because of the number of guests, 300 or so, but she wasn't expecting trouble.
But a few hours before the event started, Hauger and Smith said they saw Anderson and a passenger drive up in an old pickup truck. Organizers directed Anderson to a nearby parking area, but he took off up the drive in an area where kids were playing and people were setting up a food tent.
"He come flying in pretty quick," Hauger recalled, adding Anderson, whom she didn't know, appeared to be intoxicated. "When he got out of his truck, he fell down. They told him he couldn't park there, but he said he was with the cooks, which was not true. When they refused to serve him alcohol, he tried to leave. That's when he ran over a buddy of mine's brand new Harley Davidson."
Hauger said she tried to settle the matter amicably, asking Anderson to provide his driver's license and insurance information so she could share it with William Huntley, the motorcycle owner.
But "he proceeded to get into his vehicle to leave," she recalled. "I reached in and grabbed his keys. That's when I called the police."
Anderson was taken into custody by a Vermilion County sheriff's deputy and formally charged with DUI on Sept. 7, 2010. Hauger and Smith, who helped subdue the man until the deputy could handcuff him, were subpoenaed as witnesses.
Smith wasn't surprised when Anderson's jury trial was postponed initially, but he grew increasingly irritated each time he showed up to testify only to learn the case had been continued again. Then, he was disgusted to learn that Anderson was charged on Sept. 10, 2012, with two counts of DUI in a Catlin incident that occurred nearly two years to the day of the party.
Pretrial hearings for both the 2010 and 2012 cases are set for Sept. 5.
"I want to know why, after nearly three years, nothing has happened, and in the meantime, he's gotten another DUI," Smith said. "Are we going to let him kill someone first?"
Anderson also was charged with driving under the influence in 1997. Anderson — who was represented in that case by Brinegar, then a private-practice attorney — later pleaded guilty to reckless driving and received two years of court supervision and a fine.
Brinegar said his office objected to the first continuance in the 2010 case, hoping to settle the case early. At one point, his office and Dan Brown, Anderson's attorney in that case, were ready for trial, but the case was bumped by another case that went to trial.
Brinegar said he has made an effort to push more cases to trial. There have been 12 trials for misdemeanor and traffic cases this year, which is higher than average in the past decade.
"But the Catch-22 is each time there's a trial, there are 10 to 30 other matters whether it be a sentencing hearing, a violation hearing, a suppression hearing, that gets bumped. And because there's only one judge to hear everything, the earliest available date is approximately four months out."
Both sides also asked for several continuances.
As for his reasons, Brown said, "Without getting into the specifics, the factual and legal issues are probably more complex than what it might appear to someone who happens to be a witness."
In his case, Brinegar pointed to the high turnover in his office. One assistant state's attorney left to become a police officer. His replacement was fired, and her replacement left to go into private practice. The third attorney's replacement picked up the case in June 2012, and the case has been continued three times since then.
"If I could keep the same attorneys in the office year in and year out, it would be a big help," Brinegar said, noting that he has had five or six leave in the 4 years he has been in office.
"If I could have the funding to have more attorneys in that division, that would be a big help," he continued, adding his staff of eight prosecutors — not including those that deal with juvenile case — handle more than 2,000 cases a year. "Anytime an attorney leaves, it takes time to get a replacement and bring them up to speed. If they're new graduates, it sometimes takes time to get them up to speed on being a prosecutor."
"Unfortunately, there's a lot of turnover due to the salaries I can offer," Brinegar continued. The starting annual salary for a first-time assistant state's attorney is $40,000. "That is substantially less than a new Danville police officer's."
Brinegar said it doesn't help that Anderson was charged with another DUI and hired a different attorney to represent him in that case.
"We've upped the ante on what we want for a penalty," he said. "And now, we're dealing with two different attorneys for the same guy."
Brinegar said he understands Hauger and Smith's frustration.
"I'm frustrated, too. But it will be resolved, be it by plea agreement, which we have no choice to pursue because of the volume of cases, or by trial," he said.
"If we had another attorney, it would help speed things up and increase the number of cases that would be resolved by an appropriate agreement but the ultimate would be to have another judge. Right now, we're funneling all of those cases through one judge. If we had two, it would double their availability to hear everything."