Lake County prosecutor Bernard Carter vowed last summer his office would apply a heavier hand to drunken driving prosecutions going forward.
Now the prosecutor's office has a prime opportunity to put its money where its mouth is.
The alleged drunken driving case of yet another Region public official is at the center of this chance to prove the system is no longer soft on a crime that jeopardizes lives.
On July 19, Munster town councilman John Reed crashed his 2011 BMW into the back of another car while the vehicles were northbound on Calumet Avenue in Hammond.
Police reports indicate two people in the car struck by Reed's vehicle suffered undisclosed injuries.
Reed slurred his speech, wasn't able to fully perform aspects of a walking sobriety test and ultimately agreed to an official alcohol breath test back at the Hammond police station, a police report in the matter states.
Councilman Reed blew a .13 on the alcohol breath test — nearly twice the legally intoxicated level of .08.
Three misdemeanor charges of operating a vehicle while intoxicated followed, and the case remains pending in Hammond City Court with a Feb. 13 hearing date.
An unrelated case in the same Hammond courtroom led to Prosecutor Carter's promise to crack down harder on drunken driving cases, which in recent years have been routinely pleaded down to lesser reckless driving counts in about 60 percent of the cases.
At nearly the exact time Reed rear-ended another vehicle and registered as legally intoxicated on the breath test, Carter promised his office would pursue drunken driving pleas or convictions, not lesser reckless driving pleas, in a majority of cases going forward.
The prosecutor did this after controversy swirled around a Hammond City Court drunken driving case involving Region union official Randy Palmateer.
Palmateer, business manager of the Northwest Indiana Building and Trades Council and a staunch ally of many local Democrats, was charged with drunken driving after failing field sobriety tests during a Hammond safety checkpoint in March 2016.
But within six weeks — light-speed for a court system usually grinding in slow gridlock — Palmateer's case quickly was pleaded down to misdemeanor reckless driving. It was the second time in about five years Palmateer had received such a deal, the first coming in Lake Station City Court in 2011.
Though Palmateer's 2011 drunken driving case was heard in Lake Station court, the alleged offense actually occurred in Crown Point and was later transferred to Lake Station. In almost identical fashion, Palmateer's 2011 charge was pleaded down to misdemeanor reckless driving.
Numerous people from the public — and some public officials — cried foul that Palmateer was afforded a reckless driving plea in 2016 after already receiving such a deal in 2011.
Prosecutor Carter even told us his department's policy generally didn't offer such plea deals to repeat offenders.
Carter blamed bureaucratic blunders by the Lake Station City Court clerk, and a breakdown in communication in his office, for the 2016 deal afforded Palmateer. You can read more about those blunders in Times reporter Bill Dolan's article in today's paper.
The fact remains that Carter has an opportunity to show the Region, in a very public way, he's serious about a tougher stance on drunken driving cases as he promised in the wake of Palmateer's repeat offenses and plea deals.
Reed is a Republican, not a member of the county's major party of power. But it matters not.
He's an elected official, who most would agree should be held to a higher standard. Even Reed agreed with that premise when I contacted him about the case last week.
Reed said he's not looking for any special deals. Carter has promised he won't provide them.
So now we must wait to see what happens in a case in which a Munster councilman tested well above the legal blood-alcohol concentration following an accident that, according to police, caused injuries.
Unfortunately, the bell can't be unrung on the handling of Palmateer's cases. And Lake County Council members and commissioners rewarded Palmateer by reinstating him as their representative on a powerful Region board, rather than appropriately showing him the door in the wake of his embarrassments.
But the new year and a new case offers an opportunity to do what's right.
Party label, likability and political allegiances are irrelevant.
It's time for Carter to prove it.