A Macon police officer pulled over the Bibb County district attorney last week after police received a call that a motorist was driving erratically.
Sgt. Lisa Sapp did not believe that District Attorney Howard Simms was driving under the influence of alcohol, but as a “cautionary measure,” she drove Simms — in his government car — to Freedom Park, where his son was playing baseball, said Jami Gaudet, a spokeswoman for the police department.
The officer used “discretion” in the situation, not favoritism, and she did not violate department policy, Gaudet said.
Simms, who has announced that he intends to seek a Bibb Superior Court judgeship later this year, said the officer is the only one who can answer why she drove him to Freedom Park.
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“I did not ask for any preferential treatment,” he said.
A woman called 911 early Thursday evening and said she was driving behind a car on Ayers Road, headed toward Vineville Avenue, that had veered off the road and jerked back into a traffic lane, according to a recording of the call that police released.
“They can hardly keep it within the lines,” she said.
Before ending the call, the woman gave the dispatcher a description of the car, a gray or brown Dodge Charger, and the license plate number.
A dispatcher issued a lookout using the description, but told officers to be looking for a tag number with a one digit difference than the woman’s description. Police have not explained the discrepancy.
Sapp, after locating a car matching the description from the lookout, confirmed the license plate on the lookout and said she had stopped the car. Sapp pulled over the car on Vineville Avenue near Park Street about 7 p.m., according to a police statement.
Sapp reported back to the dispatch center that she’d made contact with the driver. In a separate conversation with dispatch, she asked for another officer to pick her up at the sports fields off Brookdale Avenue, in Payne City.
The 911 call didn’t mention Simms by name or describe what transpired aside from Sapp’s communication with the dispatch center.
No report was filed in connection with the traffic stop, Gaudet said.
Although Sapp pulled over the car, Simms “wasn’t driving erratically when she saw him,” Gaudet said.
While talking with the driver, Sapp recognized him as Simms. She smelled alcohol inside the car and asked Simms if he had been drinking, according to the police statement.
Simms replied that he had not been drinking. Sapp used her discretion when she drove him to Freedom Park, according to the statement.
Sapp did not perform a field sobriety test or administer a Breathalyzer test for alcohol, Gaudet said.
“His speech was not slurred. He was able to articulate answers to questions,” she said. “She did not believe he was driving impaired.”
Mayor Robert Reichert said he first heard of the traffic stop Tuesday afternoon.
He said he doesn’t suspect a coverup, but he said his only knowledge of the traffic stop was gleaned from the police statement released to the media.
While the mayor said the episode appears to involve preferential treatment, he said it’s possible the officer would have offered the same treatment to another person the officer knew, such as a neighbor, and might not have been limited to Simms, a public official.
“This is an unfortunate series of events, which I’m under the impression were well-intentioned,” Reichert said. “Good intentions led to an unfortunate escalation of the circumstances.”
Sapp, who was hired in 1988, did not violate any department policies, Gaudet said. She used her discretion in the situation and later reported the incident to a supervisor, Maj. Charles Stone, Police Chief Mike Burns said in an e-mail Tuesday.
The Telegraph asked Burns for a phone or in-person interview multiple times between Friday evening and Tuesday, but he did not respond, besides the e-mail communication.
“I trust my officers to make decisions as each situation warrants,” Burns wrote. “Sergeant Sapp made a judgment call on the scene. Macon police officers routinely assist the public in a variety of situations and most of the time (the assistance) goes unnoted.”
Gaudet said the incident was not a show of police favoritism toward the district attorney.
“I would call it discretion,” she said. “She used her judgment.
“What she did was in consideration for the driver.”
Although no department policies were violated, the department is considering options for future response to similar incidents, Gaudet said.
There’s nothing in departmental policy that says whether an officer can or can’t drive someone to another location after pulling them over, she said.
The Bibb County Sheriff’s Office and Georgia State Patrol also leave decisions of whether to perform a field sobriety test to an officer’s discretion, as well as whether an officer is allowed to drive a person’s car.
“Action is based on circumstances presented at the time,” said David Davis, a chief deputy for the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office.
Gordy Wright, spokesman for the Georgia State Patrol, said he can’t say that a patrolman has never driven the car of someone he or she pulled over.
“It’s going to be a judgment call,” he said.
While an officer’s discretion is important, several factors should affect an officer’s decision on whether to perform a field sobriety test, said Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police.
For example, an officer should consider whether a vehicle was observed weaving on the road, whether the car meets the description from a lookout notice and whether the driver smells of alcohol, Rotondo said.
Typically, if certain factors are present, the officer should perform the test, he said.
“It will put the issue to rest and let it die one way or the other,” Rotondo said.
Rotondo said some police agencies have policies on whether an officer is allowed to drive a vehicle they’ve pulled over in a traffic stop.
“It’s a liability issue,” he said.
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.