The blood alcohol content of Douglas Chapman, an off-duty road patrol sergeant of the Shiawassee County Sheriff’s Office, was at least 0.20% on Oct. 9, 2018, when he was found passed out at the wheel of his car, which was blocking an entrance to Interstate 69. In his car, on the front seat, were two loaded pistols.
Yet the subject of his subsequent arrest and conviction never came up in the decision-making process of the committee that appointed him Shiawassee County sheriff last month. At least not publicly. One member, county Clerk Caroline Wilson, claims not to have even known about the incident. The other two are not talking. That’s not surprising, given that it defies belief that they didn’t know of Chapman’s arrest and conviction. One is the county prosecutor, Scott Koerner, who was an assistant prosecutor at the time. The other is Probate Judge Thomas Dignan, who was not only in office but also the cousin of one of the district judges who recused themselves from hearing the case. Koerner and Dignan were in positions to know such things.
Curiously, Dignan sought to recuse himself from voting on the done-deal appointment, which was made without so much as interviewing Chapman and the other two candidates. Wilson told City Pulse she did not know why the judge sought not to vote. His effort was overruled by chair Koerner — something the minutes do not reflect, which is an apparent violation of the state Open Meetings Act. Could it be that the judge knew a coverup was in progress?
We are not saying Chapman was the wrong choice. We are saying the selection committee failed to grapple with an important issue. Certainly, Chapman had a drinking problem before his arrest — you don’t consume that quantity of alcohol without one. The public has every right to know if he still does and what he is doing about it. And now the public deserves to know why the committee avoided letting them in on Chapman’s drunk-driving arrest and conviction, which did not come to light until three weeks ago, when City Pulse reported it.
Moreover, the committee announced a plan that was to include interviews. Perhaps they would have been a formality, given that Chapman’s 30 years of experience, including being licensed and certified by the state, in the Sheriff’s Department far overshadowed the law enforcement backgrounds of the other two candidates. But the committee broke faith with the public by truncating the process — and perhaps violated the state Open Meetings Law, as an executive with the Michigan Press Association has suggested. We hope someone with standing in Shiawassee County will challenge the committee’s failure to follow through with interviews and document all decisions made in a public meeting.
This sham of a process was clearly an ethical failure; a court needs to determine if it also violated the law. And the Legislature should look at the silence of the state statute on the appointment process pertaining to interviews. These candidates are, after all, seeking to fill in for elected officials, sometimes for as long as two years until the next General Election, as is the case with Sheriff Chapman.
The committee’s abuse of public trust is only part of this sorry affair, though, and not even the worst of it.
Chapman was essentially a lethal weapon. His actions that morning could have turned him into a high-speed missile had he not passed out at the wheel of his truck before getting on the highway. Every 45 minutes, someone in the United States dies in an alcohol-related auto accident, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But from the outset, he received special treatment.
Michigan State Police troopers found him at about 1 a.m. Chapman asserted his right to decline a field sobriety test on the roadside — those are the tests where someone is asked to walk a straight line or touch their nose — so he was arrested and escorted to the MSP post in Flint. Then came his first break: a two-hour wait before he was tested. In those two hours, experts say, the amount of alcohol in his blood undoubtedly declined from at least .20. When he was finally tested, the results were .19 and then three minutes later .17. That latter happens to be the minimum to charge him as “super drunk,” which carries a higher penalty. Yet, the state police chose the lesser charge of driving while intoxicated and one charge instead of two for being in possession of two firearms while intoxicated. The fellow cop received three breaks before he even had a hangover.
From there, Chapman’s trail of special treatment leads to Lansing because of recusals in Shiawassee County. The Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office granted two breaks in one: a plea deal that reduced the charge to driving while impaired and dropped the remaining charge of possession of a firearm while intoxicated. From there, 54-A District Judge Louise Alderson, who has since retired, sentenced Chapman to nine months’ probation and a fine of $150 — $550 below the maximum for the already minimized charge he was facing. And after just six months, the court agreed he had fulfilled his probation.
Contrast that with the similar first-offense drunk-driving case in Shiawassee County two years ago in which a then-assistant prosecutor showed up legally drunk at work but inebriated below the super drunk level. He was convicted on the same lesser charge of driving while impaired, but the gun charge stuck and his fine was $1,500.
Our county prosecutor at the time, Carol Siemon, said she doesn’t recall the Chapman case, which we find find surprising. After all, how many cases involving law enforcement officers passed through her office? Asked for comment by City Pulse, Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina labeled it a “sweetheart deal,” with which we agree. Siemon’s successor, John Dewane, who handled such referral cases for Siemon, said the outcome was “consistent” with Siemon’s charging and sentencing policies. City Pulse plans to look into the outcome of other similar drunk-driving cases during the same period and see if that is true.
Whatever the outcome, we are left with one of two conclusions, neither palatable: either Chapman received special treatment or we are not taking seriously enough the danger that drunk driving poses in our community.
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