Niagara sheriff: ‘Justice system didn’t work’ in DWI dismissal

LOCKPORT, N.Y. (WIVB) — Representatives of the agency that runs the state’s court system said Wednesday they are looking into why a drunk driving charge against the daughter of a well known member of the court was dismissed last week by a Niagara Falls judge.

But the focus of the New York State Unified Court System isn’t on the judge who made the decision, Robert Merino.

“We are looking into the circumstances behind the dismissal and it is being investigated,” said Lucian Chalfen, director of public information for the Unified Court System. “The target is not the judge. The target is another individual associated with the court system.”

Chalfen declined to elaborate about that individual.

The Hon. Paula Feroleto, the administrative judge of the 8th District, which includes Western New York, said she is unaware of any investigation into Merino.

“They’re not looking into Judge Merino whatsoever,” Feroleto said. “I’m sure there is no investigation of Judge Merino whatsoever.”

Because he is an acting judge, Merino declined to comment on last week’s decision and the state’s inquiry.

But the agency that charged Rachel Winter with DWI in November 2016, the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office, had plenty to say.

Niagara County Sheriff James Voutour said Wednesday his office has tried to right a wrong after being first alerted to a possible problem months ago.

Rachel Winter is the daughter of Ron Winter, former Niagara County District Attorney and the current law clerk for State Supreme Court Justice Richard Kloch, Sr.

In November, the 21-year-old Winter was pulled over for suspected drunk driving. The sheriff’s office said she failed multiple field sobriety tests and was then charged with DWI.

The deputy who made the arrest was wearing a body camera at the time. Voutour said the video from that night shows Rachel Winter calling her father on her cell phone to ask for advice about taking a breathalyzer test. Voutour also said Ron Winter spoke to the deputy at the scene and asked if the situation could be handled differently. The cell phone was on speaker, Voutour said.

When Rachel Winter and the deputy arrived back at the sheriff’s office for booking, the deputy’s supervisor, Lt. Steve Broderick intervened, and asked the deputy about whether he felt comfortable with downgrading the DWI charge to something less serious.

“The people in this county expect us to do our job,” Voutour said. “They don’t expect people to get off because of their connections.”

Rachel Winter’s case proceeded with lesser charges. But when the Niagara County District Attorney’s Office reviewed the body camera video, they contacted the sheriff’s office. Something didn’t add up.

The sheriff’s office investigated, ultimately determining Broderick was wrong to intervene, and he was disciplined. They then re-arrested Rachel Winter and charged her with DWI. The case ended last week with Merino’s decision to dismiss the DWI charge.

“You look at this, there’s a long history of this going on,” Voutour said. “We said no today.”

“The people expect us to do our job,” he added. “We did it, there was interference in it. It was brought to our attention, we addressed that.”
Voutour said he was especially concerned that, in addition to dismissing the charge, he issued Rachel Winter an apology.
“There’s somebody watching this newscast tonight that lost a loved one to a DWI crash,” Voutour said. “That’s who maybe the judge should be apologizing to, to those victims. Not apologizing to the offender.”
The prosecutor in the case, Orleans County District Joseph Cardone phoned in on conference call because he was out of town.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Cardone said he was trying to get the case adjourned until he returned. Since all parties were already present, Cardone said he proceeded with the case via a conference call that lasted longer than 10 minutes. Cardone said during the call, he requested to enter the body camera video into evidence.

“I moved that into evidence to show that it wasn’t that strong,” Cardone said.

“She’s not falling-down drunk,” Cardone added, describing the video. “She completes the walk-and-turn. She’s not faltering She’s not wobbly, she’s responsive to his (the deputy’s) questions. She’s clear and lucid in her responses.”

Undersheriff Michael Filicetti said he believes the prosecution was incomplete, at best.

“They never put the deputy on the stand to offer testimony,” Filicetti said. “How do you make a determination there’s insufficient evidence when you haven’t provided the evidence in court? It’s unheard of.”

Cardone said any insinuation by Voutour that the dismissal makes the sheriff’s deputies’ jobs more difficult is inappropriate.

“That’s like the pot calling the kettle black,” Cardone said. “They own that decision.”

Voutour said he disagrees.

“We simply see that the justice system didn’t work,” Voutour said. “What really upset us is when the judge apologizes to the suspect in this case. How do I answer to people who have been killed by DWI drivers. And how do I answer for the integrity of my department.”

“We said enough is enough. We’re standing up for this one,” Voutour added. “We didn’t do anything wrong. We tried to correct a wrong that was presented to us…With zero cooperation to us from an elected judge and an elected district attorney.”

Flicetti said the sheriff’s office will pursue filing a complaint with an appropriate state agency.

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