A field sobriety test of Lake County drunken driving prosecutions in 2016 shows Prosecutor Bernard Carter was genuine in his sober prediction of tougher litigation.
The bad news is — in at least one case — the policy appears to have lost its balance in favor of a former prosecutor's employee, who was granted a plea deal in apparent contradiction of this promise.
As they navigate prosecutions and plea bargains of future OWI cases, Carter and his deputies should be cautioned to stay within the lines of Carter's promise to avoid lesser misdemeanor reckless driving pleas to alleged drunken-driving offenses.
Times readers will be familiar with this issue.
Past Times investigations have revealed than only about 40 percent of drunken driving arrests led to operating while intoxicated (OWI) convictions in Lake County courts.
Those probes revealed about 60 percent of OWI cases were pleaded down to lesser charges, most of the time misdemeanor reckless driving.
This was clearly sending the wrong message to offenders who put public safety at risk through their actions.
The issue received renewed attention in July when Times columns, editorials and news stories revealed politically connected Region union official Randy Palmateer had just received his second reckless driving plea within a five-year period to charges that began as drunken driving allegations.
Following intense criticism, Carter vowed in late July to get tougher on OWI prosecutions, pursuing drunken driving — not lesser reckless driving — convictions in most cases.
A Times computer-assisted review of 2016 OWI prosecutions in Lake County courts shows he's taking that promise seriously.
As 2016 drew to a close, about 553 drunken driving cases had been completed while, 761 remained pending.
Prior to Carter's promise of tougher prosecutions, only 39 percent of 2016 OWI arrests resulted in OWI guilty pleas or convictions. About 54 percent ended with prosecutors offering defendants pleas to the lesser charge of reckless driving.
But then Carter made his promise in late July, and the trend changed dramatically.
Court records show that of the completed 2016 OWI cases following Carter's promise, 74 percent, or 225 cases, resulted in OWI convictions.
About 19 percent, or 56 cases, ended with a lesser reckless driving plea bargain.
Unfortunately, Carter's office continued to create questions about such prosecutions in 2016.
One of those reckless driving plea deals was granted to Crown Point lawyer Angelo Politakis.
Lake County payroll records show, and Carter confirmed, Politakis worked as a part-time law clerk for Carter's office during a period of about six years.
Neither Politakis nor his attorney returned calls seeking comment about the matter.
But Carter confirmed Politakis clerked for the prosecutor part-time while working his way through college and law school.
Indiana Bar Association records show Politakis became a Lake County attorney in May.
At 8:40 p.m. July 23, Politakis was driving his gray, four-door sedan near the intersection of 113th Avenue and Madison Street in Crown Point when he swerved into the curb, court records state.
The force of the swerve flattened both tires on the car's right side, and the vehicle caused gouging on the pavement for about 100 yards, Crown Point police noted.
Politakis eventually flagged down a passing Crown Point patrolman, who noted the suspect gave off a "moderate" odor of alcohol and was slurring his speech.
Politakis subsequently stumbled during walking and other sobriety tests but refused to take both a portable alcohol breath test at the scene and a certified breath test at the Crown Point Police Department, court records allege.
All the while, Politakis denied he had been drinking, police said.
Ultimately, Politakis was charged with OWI endangering a person.
The charge seems reasonable.
Politakis showed multiple signs of intoxication, according to the police report.
He denied drinking alcohol prior to the incident but also refused to clear the matter up by submitting to alcohol breath tests.
And veering one's car into the curb of a public roadway with enough force to puncture two tires is a clear sign of danger to the public.
So why was Politakis offered a plea deal to the lesser charge of misdemeanor reckless driving in October, about two months after the incident?
When I first asked Carter about this case last week, he offered a familiar response — one a I also heard when we questioned him about Palmateer's reckless driving pleas in July.
He said he didn't know anything about the case until I called him.
Carter then checked with one of his chief deputies, who acknowledged the plea deal had been offered to Politakis, a former employee.
Carter also acknowledged that the plea deal was offered following his promise to crack down on lesser plea deals in OWI cases.
He noted that because a police officer referred to a "moderate" and not a "strong" odor of alcohol, because Politakis had no prior arrests and because no one had been injured in the crash, Politakis was offered the deal.
Regardless of the reasoning, the case creates serious questions about a plea deal offered to Politakis but not most other OWI defendants.
It smacks of favoritism, and Carter knows it.
It's encouraging to see Carter following through on promises to seek drunken driving pleas or convictions in most cases.
But his plan will only stay between the lines if executed with fairness and consistency.