BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – The New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct will soon decide whether a town justice is disciplined for a drunk driving conviction.
Timothy J. Cooper, an Evans justice for nearly 30 years, was convicted of driving while impaired last June. He continues to sit on the bench where his duties include hearing drunk-driving cases.
Robert Catalano, Evans citizens activist recently filed a complaint with the commission asking that Cooper be removed.
“How can a judge sit in judgment of drunk drivers when he is also a drunk driver? I don’t think you can,” said Catalano.
In his letter to the commission, Catalano wrote, “I cannot see how Judge Cooper can dispense justice having been convicted of a drunk driving offense. I believe he should be removed from the bench.”
In its response the commission said its work is confidential and “we cannot disclose whether any action is being taken.” The commission said it was already aware of the “matters noted in your complaint” and “your letter will be added to that file.”
Cooper was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated, a misdemeanor, on the night of April 23, 2014.
It was his first offense.
According to the police report, Cooper was driving north on the Robert Moses Parkway in the Town of Lewiston when he swerved into the southbound lane hitting an SUV head on, causing it to flip onto its side.
The SUV’s elderly driver suffered a cut to his ear.
State troopers administered a field sobriety test after smelling alcohol.
Cooper failed the test.
Cooper also refused to take a chemical breath test, according to the police report.
John Sullivan of the Erie County Stop DWI program says about a third of the people arrested refuse to take the test. “They may be making a calculation that they might think their blood alcohol concentration is very high and they don’t want that in evidence there may be some process objections, some civil rights objections to doing that,” he said.
The Niagara County Stop DWI program could not say what that county’s refusal rate is.
Cooper’s case was transferred to North Tonawanda after both Town of Lewiston justices recused themselves from hearing it. Cooper opted for a non-jury trial before North Tonawanda City Court Judge William R. Lewis who convicted Cooper of a lesser charge, driving while impaired, a violation.
Cooper was also convicted of unsafely changing lanes.
His sentence included a fine and losing his driver’s license for 90 days.
He was not convicted of refusing to take the breath test. His attorney says there were procedural problems with that charge.
Cooper declined to comment. But his attorney Terry Connors said the judge should not be removed from the bench.
“That would be an extremely harsh remedy given the fact that there was one incident in an otherwise unblemished record,” said Connors.
Connors said Cooper was “proactive” and sought counseling and an evaluation that there “wasn’t an issue with alcohol.” He also completed a driver’s improvement program.
“We believe under those circumstances that an admonition is warranted which is a lower form of sanction,” said Connors.
Connors has appealed to the commission to impose the lower sanction which is public but allows the judge to continue on the bench.
The commission’s disciplinary options range from a private letter to removal.
Cooper gets more than $160,000 for his full-time job as a family court judge in Niagara Falls and his part-time elected justice position in Evans.
Connors said that Cooper voluntarily removed himself from hearing drunk-driving cases while his case was being adjudicated. He has since resumed full duties which includes hearing drunk- driving cases.
Robert Tembeckjian, administrator and counsel to the commission, said he cannot comment on pending cases or even confirm that the commission is investigating Cooper.
He told News 4 that ethical investigations consider many factors.
“The commission will take a number of factors into consideration in determining whether a judge should be disciplined and what the discipline should be,” he said.
Factors include the severity of the crime, exacerbating factors and whether the judge tried to use influence during the arrest.
“It could be a factor that the judge presides over the very category of case that the judge himself is ultimately convicted of having violated,” said Tembeckjian.
If the commission acts, Cooper will become the first judge in Erie County disciplined for a drunk driving-related charge. Since 1978, 19 judges have been disciplined, five from Western New York. One was from Niagara County.
One judge was censured and four received admonitions.
Here’s more information on those decisions:
|John F. Innes, Jr.||Genesee||1984||http://lintvwivb.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/innes.john.f.jr.1984.07.06.det.pdf|
|John D. Henderson, Jr.||Orleans||1994||http://lintvwivb.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/henderson.john.d.jr.1994.03.18.det.pdf|
|James V. Burns||Chautauqua||1998||http://lintvwivb.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/burns.james.v.1998.10.20.det.pdf|
|David J. Pajak||Genesee||2004||http://lintvwivb.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/pajak.david.j.2004.10.06.det.pdf|
|Donald P. Martineck||Niagara||2010||http://lintvwivb.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/martineck.donald.2010.10.12.det.pdf|