WNEM TV5 Investigates: Legal Leniency 7-20-2010 - WNEM TV 5

WNEM TV5 Investigates: Legal Leniency 7-20-2010

You’ve seen police dash cam video before, officers tracking a suspected drunken driver.
The video WNEM TV5 obtained doesn’t seem much different, but the man behind the wheel is actually a prominent figure in Saginaw.
WATCH: WNEM TV5 Investigates: Legal Leniency
Paul Chaffee, longtime editor and publisher of The Saginaw News, was pulled over Jan. 29 in St. Charles Township by Saginaw County deputies for suspicion of drunken driving.
The dash cam video shows Chaffee undergoing a field sobriety test and telling deputies he had one glass of wine and that he was tired.
"Mr. Chaffee blew a .13," Saginaw County Sheriff William Federspiel told TV5. "The legal limit is .08 -- .13 is pretty intoxicated."
Chaffee was arrested on charges of operating while intoxicated and was lodged in the Saginaw County Jail. But a WNEM TV5 investigation revealed the charges against Chaffee were dropped on arraignment day to a non-alcoholic offense of careless driving.
"Plea agreements occur, but the problem with this case is that it all happened on one day," Federspiel said. "Usually you plead guilty or not, come back for a prelim exam and go back 14 days later. This was worked out in one day.”
Court papers show Saginaw County Prosecutor Mike Thomas accepted Chaffee’s careless driving plea and dismissed the original charge of operating while intoxicated.
According to a police report, Chaffee told the arresting deputy he wasn’t worried because, "He had a good lawyer, money and knew people.”
TV5 asked the sheriff if that sends a message that certain people can get breaks.
"Yes, it does send a message that someone of influence or who knows people might be able to get off," Federspiel responded. "That is not fair."
Chaffee, who is a well-respected active participant in the Saginaw County Crime Prevention Board, ended up paying a $178 fine for driving left of center. Thomas said four points were also added to his license.
If he had been convicted of the initial drunken driving charge, penalties could have included 93 days in jail, community service and fines of up to $1,000.
Chaffee who spent more than 20 years at The Saginaw News declined to talk to TV5 on camera. Thomas didn’t want to talk on camera either, but told TV5 the two were not friends, but only professional acquaintances.
So what really happened the night Chaffee was pulled over? Was he really tired or intoxicated?
The sheriff said the evidence is clear.
"We did our job and our job is to take drunk drivers off the street," Federspiel said. "Whatever happens in the court, we try not to worry ourselves about it. It's out of our hands and something we can’t control."
Thomas said his office takes drunken driving more seriously than any other municipality. Coincidentally, prosecutor Thomas helped co-found the MADD Chapter in Saginaw County.
Thomas also said it’s up to the discretion of the prosecutor’s office to decide what will happen to cases like this one.
Chaffee later contacted TV5 to clarify the alleged comments he made to arresting the deputy:
"I felt six months ago, and still do -- that the deputy involved in my case was very professional as he was doing his important duties. I believe that the (police) report is the result of an honest misunderstanding of something else that I said, or maybe, words not heard clearly. Such a comment is so foreign to my nature and so inconsistent with my values that I would not have said such a thing under any circumstances.”

We want your Fast Feedback on this TV5 Investigation:
Did Paul Chaffee get off on a lesser charge because of his stature and who he knows in the community?
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