By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Last Thursday, state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, from the 37th District, pleaded guilty to negligent driving in the first degree. She received a three-month suspended sentence on the condition that she complete 20 hours of community service, pay a $350 fine, complete 24 months of probation, and pay court costs, which were about $1,500.
Santos was the former majority whip — the fourth top spot in the Democratic caucus. Currently, she is education committee chair.
Santos’ attorney, William Kirk, and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg have both said that the terms of the plea deal is standard for first-time offenders.
The incident happened on July 20. Santos was spotted by Washington State Trooper Jason Greer. According to Greer’s incident report, Santos was driving southbound on I-5 just before midnight on July 20. Greer observed her drifting out of her lane several times.
Santos was driving in lane three. “The vehicle slowly drifted into lane four by over a tire’s width and then back into its own lane,” Greer’s report said. “I then observed the vehicle drift over into lane two (tire’s width). I continued to follow the vehicle to Michigan Street as it continued to drift side-to-side in its lane of travel.”
Santos said she was reaching for her cigarettes in her purse, which is why her car swerved. “My purse had fallen from the passenger seat into the foot area of the passenger seat,” she said.
Greer’s report said once he pulled her over, he could smell “the odor of intoxicants coming from Ms. Santos’ breath, her eyes appeared watery, and her speech was slurred.”
Santos explained that she had three drinks at a bar starting at 6:30 p.m. She consented to voluntary field sobriety tests. Greer’s report states that Santos had trouble with the tests. According to the report, she was unsteady on her feet and swayed side-to-side about 1 to 2 inches. Greer also wrote that Santos smiled, as if she was about to laugh.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m attacking the state patrol,” said Santos, who stressed that Greer was doing his job, and she doesn’t believe she was treated unfairly. “But I was bothered by the fact that if you read the report, it’s more than just statements of fact. There are elements in there where he takes the additional step of interpreting. There was one section where he wrote, she smiled as if she was going to laugh. I was like, wait a minute, there’s nothing laughable about the situation. I wouldn’t laugh. And as you or anyone knows, when you’re embarrassed, you kind of smile.”
“I guess I found it a little [objectionable] that there was a hanging innuendo,” added Santos. “That I was so impaired that I couldn’t stand on my own two feet. And I was thinking, if I’m taking off high heels, I need to lean on something to take off high heels. I wasn’t going to sit on the side of the road to do it. … In fact, I asked him if I could use him to balance on while I removed my first shoe.”
Santos agreed to a preliminary breath test (PBT). At 12:10 a.m. on July 21, she blew a .077, which is below the legal limit of .08. However, Greer’s report states that he thinks Santos’ breath was weak, and he had to manually capture the sample in order to obtain a reading.
She was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving and taken to the Renton Police Department (RPD) station. In Greer’s report, it is shown that Santos didn’t sign the Implied Consent Warning (ICW) because she had concerns.
“I don’t like signing my name to something that I haven’t read and/or that I don’t understand. “[The ICW] clearly says that you are waiving certain rights. It make references to certain RCW (Revised Code of Washington) laws, but it just references the RCW. So I asked for the full citation so I could understand it. The thing that was odd was that there was a cross reference inside one of the RCWs to a different RCW. The trooper didn’t have that information. In some ways, it was a minor thing that ended up being a bigger thing than I certainly intended. All I wanted to do was sign my name truthfully.”
Later, at the RPD, at 12:35 a.m., Santos tried to take a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) test. However, she failed to blow into the BAC device properly. Greer’s report states that it appeared she didn’t want to blow into the breathalyzer hard in order to get a lower reading. After three “incomplete” test results were printed, Greer performed the test himself successfully. Greer wrote that a refusal ticket was printed at 1:28 a.m. Santos’ driver’s license was punched (revoked).
Santos said that she was simply unable to complete the test, which involved blowing hard into a tube for 15 seconds. Santos then asked Greer if there was any other way to get a BAC result. According to his report, Greer told her that they could go to the nearest hospital for a blood test. He offered to transport her to Valley Medical Center.
“By this time, it was almost 2 a.m. I had been trying to go home since about 11:30 p.m. The reason I was trying to go home was because I was tired. [By 2 a.m.], I was really tired. I asked the trooper if there was another way to demonstrate that my blood alcohol was below the legal limit because I was very upset that I was failing on the other test. I knew I wasn’t over the limit. When he said that he could bring me to the hospital, he said, ‘But I’d have to leave you there.’ Who knows how long I would’ve had to be there? … So I had to really think about it because I didn’t have a car, so I didn’t have a way to get home by myself. I knew [my husband] Bob would be worried. Ultimately, I decided I was too tired to make a sound decision, so I didn’t go to the hospital. I didn’t think it was as important as it turned out to be.”
In Washington state, a person is guilty of negligent driving in the first degree if he or she operates a motor vehicle in a manner that is both negligent — failing to exercise ordinary care — and endangers or is likely to endanger any person or property, and if he or she exhibits the effects of having consumed liquor or an illegal drug. Negligent driving in the first degree is a misdemeanor.
“Do I feel like I was treated unfairly because of who I am? No,” said Santos. “But I was a little bit surprised at some of the characterizations in the police report. … That was I wanted to fight in court. The thing that I thought was most unfortunate was the piece around the refusal [to take the BAC] and how that gets perceived in the court of public opinion. In fact, I did try. I followed the trooper’s instructions. I think that the Department of Licensing (DOL) restored my driver’s license because they felt I didn’t refuse to participate in a blood alcohol content test. I had no reason to not do so.”
Santos’ driver’s license was restored during a DOL hearing in part due to the testimony of Anthony McElroy, a retired state trooper who served 25 years, who helped develop the protocol in determining if people have been driving under the influence. He said Santos was not given good directions.
“Sharon has got such a great record,” said Kip Tokuda, a former 37th District Representative. “I’m sure that regardless of what’s happened, certainly those who understand her full body of work will find that this unfortunate incident doesn’t take away from her work. … And I think her work over the next couple of years will be consistent with her work in the past. My sense is that constituents will recognize and appreciate this about her.”
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” said Al Sugiyama, former executive director of the Center for Career Alternatives and a friend of Santos. Sugiyama said he is skeptical of Greer’s comments in the report.
“[Blowing a] .077 is still under the legal limit. Stories in other [news] reports gave the impression that Sharon wasn’t cooperating, but [she would] realize that if you don’t cooperate with police, you’ll be put into jail. Implying that she wasn’t cooperating isn’t fair.”
“One of the drawbacks of being in public office is that we are clearly held to a higher standard,” said Tokuda, speaking on the public scrutiny he personally experienced while in office, not specifically on Santos. “There is a lot of public scrutiny in all we do. You know to be that much more vigilant, and the repercussions are much more severe. It’s an extreme amount of pressure, and it’s one reason why some of us choose not to continue in public office.”
“We are fortunate to have leaders like Sharon Santos, who has been there for the API community,” said Ruthann Kurose. “It is important that we support our leaders who have been responsive to our community.”
“The most difficult telephone calls I’ve had to make were first to members of my family,” said Santos.
“The other group of telephone calls that were difficult, but necessary to make, were to the young people in our community that I feel particularly close to. I want them to understand that I recognize I made a mistake and that I’m not afraid to talk about this. I hope this kind of experience would never befall any of the people I care about. I hope they can learn from my mistake.”
“I’m so very grateful to all of the people who have called and expressed their concerns and support for me during this difficult time.”
Santos said she has learned a lot about Washington’s law enforcement and legal systems. She attended an alcohol awareness education class and a victims’ panel. “I’m glad for those experiences and for that information.” ♦
Assunta Ng contributed to this report.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.