L AFAYETTE — Defendants who secured favorable DWI plea deals in exchange for bribes may be in line for one more benefit: Their first-offense DWI conviction might not be counted against them if they get pulled over a second time.
Lafayette City Court Judges Douglas Saloom and Francie Bouillion ruled in a batch of DWI cases last week that first-offense DWI pleas made as part of a bribery scandal in the local court system cannot be used as the basis for a second-offense DWI, which carries harsher penalties.
Five people have pleaded guilty in a federal probe of the pay-for-plea scandal, including three former employees of the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
Federal prosecutors allege the employees accepted gifts and cash from Lafayette private investigator Robert Williamson in exchange for allowing his clients’ DWI cases to be quickly resolved and expunged if they completed certain probation requirements, such as community service and substance abuse treatment.
Williamson is set for trial next year.
“The judges made it clear that their rulings would apply to all Williamson pleas and not just those for which motions were filed,” said defense attorney Barry Sallinger, who brought the legal challenge to the first-offense pleas in city court and who has said his clients did not realize the money they paid Williamson was for bribes.
The legal challenge centered on the fact that the defendants were not represented by an attorney, only Williamson.
“The court found the criminal convictions of the bribery scheme principals and procedural irregularities of the Williamson pleas so egregious that it was compelled to reject their validity,” Sallinger said.
It is unclear how many plea deals Williamson allegedly helped arrange, but the number could exceed 100, according to figures in federal court filings detailing the amount of money that changed hands in the four years the scheme operated from 2008 to 2012.
Fifteenth Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson said Friday he will fight the ruling by the two City Court judges.
“I do plan on taking action to reverse that decision since it was made without any evidentiary hearing, and therefore, there were no facts established to prove the allegations of the defendant’s motion,” Harson wrote in an email.
Most DWI cases in Lafayette land in City Court, where the ruling applies, but questions about the validity of the so-called Williamson pleas also have been raised in state district court in Lafayette Parish.
Fifteenth Judicial District Chief Public Defender G. Paul Marx sent a memo earlier this year to all public defenders directing them to question first-offense DWI pleas arranged as part of the bribery scandal.
Marx, whose office provides legal help to defendants who cannot afford a private lawyer, said he did not know how many cases his attorneys have handled involving Williamson pleas, but he said there have been cases where the District Attorney’s Office dropped a second-offense enhancement in a DWI case when the issue was raised.
“Basically, our approach was on a case-by-case basis to just talk to the assistant (district attorney),” Marx said. “My understanding is that, generally, in district court, they were just backing off.”
No written reasons were filed in the court record for the ruling by Saloom and Bouillion on Wednesday relating to the validity of the first-offense DWI cases. However, the court record indicates that both judges sat together to hear Sallinger’s legal challenge and both agreed to quash the Williamson pleas.
Sallinger had argued, among other things, that the first-offense pleas should be thrown out because they were not negotiated by an attorney, raising questions of whether the defendants lost out on a chance to challenge evidence and whether they were aware a plea to first-offense DWI would mean harsher penalties for a second offense.
Sallinger has said the defendants he has represented, at least one of whom paid Williamson $5,000, did not realize the money was for bribes but rather thought it was for a legitimate legal service.
Harson has said in prior interviews the DWI defendants had waived their right to a lawyer, but Sallinger has disputed whether they knew enough about what was happening to make a reasoned decision about legal representation.
The ruling in City Court comes as the state Attorney General’s Office has taken a renewed interest in the bribery scandal.
The AG’s Office had announced last year it would defer to federal authorities and not pursue state criminal charges in the case.
But Assistant Attorney General David Caldwell confirmed last week that the AG’s Office has launched a separate state investigation at the request of federal officials.
He declined to elaborate on the details of the investigation.
The bribery scandal was a key issue in a heated 15th Judicial District attorney’s race that was decided Nov. 4, when retired prosecutor Keith Stutes ousted Harson, who had served for 20 years.
Harson has not been identified as the target of a federal investigation.