The perception of special treatment in the investigation of Martin Whited, a CHP captain suspected of drinking and driving in 2009, sparked public outcry about the appearance of a double standard for law enforcement officers.
To avoid a similar situation, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson is taking steps to make sure department officials ensure equal enforcement of the law when it comes to CHP officers and other law enforcement officials.
After reviewing the case against Whited — dismissed by a judge for lack of evidence — the sheriff has directed his department to carefully review DUI laws and uphold the same legal standard for all criminal suspects.
While Parkinson offered to conduct investigations in potential conflict-of-interest cases for the CHP, a local CHP leader said the agency won’t consider changing its policy, which allows it to investigate its own officials.
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Parkinson wasn’t sheriff at the time of the incident involving Whited in 2009. But since the decision to drop the case, Parkinson has directed supervisors and deputies to refresh themselves on the details of the law.
That includes the penal code section that states an arrest may be made based on circumstantial evidence of a driver in a parked car, such as in the Whited case.
Whited was found by sheriff’s deputies in a parked car near Templeton in March 2009 and showed signs of being drunk. The department then called a CHP captain who arrived and took Whited home, which was not the normal procedure. Usually a patrol officer would come and investigate.
The CHP has a memo of understanding with other law enforcement agencies — including the Sheriff’s Department — to take over DUI investigations if the other agencies first encounter a suspected drunken driver, as was done in the Whited case.
Neither deputies nor CHP officials called to the scene conducted a field sobriety test or a blood alcohol exam. The lack of evidence led Judge Michael Duffy to dismiss the case.
“My action is to simply prevent a situation (like the Whited one from happening again),” Parkinson said. “I want the department to fully understand the memo of understanding, the laws and my stance.”
Parkinson also said that sheriff’s officials in the future will call CHP dispatch to respond to a suspected DUI case — instead of a CHP captain, as happened in the Whited investigation — to avoid any appearance of special treatment.
The sheriff also has extended the offer to the CHP to have sheriff’s officials conduct investigations involving CHP officials suspected of criminal behavior, to avoid any potential conflict of interest.
“I have met with the CHP, and we have discussed making sure we follow the protocol,” Parkinson said. “If there are extraordinary considerations to be made and we’re asked to conduct an investigation, we’re happy to do it.”
CHP Coastal Division chief Adam Cuevas said Friday that the local agency may take Parkinson up on that offer on a case-by-case basis.
The agency likely won’t change its policy of conducting local DUI investigations of the general public, including CHP officials, Cuevas said. “Our general policy is that everybody gets treated equally,” Cuevas said. “They’re already trained that way, and we have ongoing training to constantly remind them.”
Cuevas admitted that mistakes were made in the Whited case, saying that CHP officials didn’t understand that the law allowed them to make the arrest.
He said that in past years, under older laws, suspected drunken drivers found in parked cars weren’t arrested, and noted that now the law allows for discretion in those instances.
“There was a mistake on our part,” Cuevas said. “I hope we never have an issue like this again.”