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3 drivers behind bars for DWI test defiance

County enforcing contempt charge for refusing order

Three more Allen County drivers are cooling their heels in jail after refusing to submit to a court order for a blood draw after being pulled over on suspicion of operating a vehicle while intoxicated.

On Friday, Allen Superior Court Judges John Surbeck and Fran Gull, as well as Magistrate Samuel Keirns, each had a hearing on a civil charge of indirect contempt of court with different drivers who balked at the court order. Indirect contempt involves obstructing court process or refusing a judge’s order outside the presence of the judge. Direct contempt involves misbehavior within the courtroom or in front of the judge.

In September, Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards announced a shift in how her office handles drunken-driving arrests and suspects who refuse to submit to a certified Breathalyzer test at the jail. Now her office obtains a search warrant from a judge forcing the driver to stick an arm out and get a blood test.

While Indiana law requires anyone who refuses chemical breath tests to have his or her driver’s license suspended for a year, the refusals left prosecutors with little or no evidence to effectively prosecute the case.

The contempt citations bring jail sentences that cannot be reduced by good behavior. Unlike a prison sentence, in which inmates get one day of credit for each day of good behavior, potentially cutting their sentences in half, a person in the jail on the contempt citations serves every day of a sentence.

On Friday, Aric Starnes, 39, was sent to the county jail for the next six months. He balked twice – once in October and again in November. He received two separate sentences of 90 days in jail, to be served one after another, from Gull. He has a number of operating while intoxicated cases, as well as a public intoxication charge and domestic battery.

Starnes faces two additional felony charges of operating while intoxicated based on the October and November arrests.

Keirns sent 31-year-old Tiffany Vassil to jail for a total of 10 days. She is charged with a misdemeanor charge of operating a vehicle while intoxicated, as well as a felony charge of resisting law enforcement with a vehicle.

Keirns reminded Vassil that the court orders are not handed down arbitrarily and are meant to be heeded. “We take it very seriously,” he said. “Nothing is rubber-stamped. We expect it to be executed.”

Surbeck sent a 24-year-old Fort Wayne man to jail for 30 days on a contempt charge, stemming for a November arrest. The Journal Gazette is not naming the man because he is charged with a misdemeanor count of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated.

Richards handled that man’s case herself, and said she hopes to see the contempt citations drop off as word gets out that the judges are putting people in jail for failing to comply with the court orders.

“If drivers refuse a breath test, we’re drawing your blood,” Richards said. “And if you refuse that, we’re going to get a warrant. And if you refuse that you’re going to jail.

“With every single one, they’ve gotten a jail sentence.”

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