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Wednesday, December 12 , 2018, 2:02 am | Fair 45º


Letter to the Editor: Santa Barbara News-Press Stands By DUI Series

On June 23, just one day into our groundbreaking five-part series on DUI investigations, the Santa Barbara Police Department took the unprecedented step of issuing a press release claiming that writer Peter Lance wrote a story that was “one-sided,” and that the decision by the News-Press to publish it was “flawed and unprofessional.” However, at no time has the department refuted a single factual allegation.

As stated at the beginning of the series and in each installment, five-time Emmy-winning journalist Lance began investigating the series after he was arrested on suspicion of DUI in the early hours of New Year’s Day and found so many material misstatements of fact in the report by officer Kasi Beutel that he began to examine her credibility. He did this, not out of a desire for revenge or retaliation as the Police Department suggests, but in the best tradition of journalism — allowing the facts to determine the outcome.

As in all news reports, the facts establish the credibility of the story. Lance has devoted a 35-year career to investigating misconduct by government officials. This latest series was the culmination of a five-month probe into officer Beutel’s record as MADD’s award-winning “Top DUI Officer” in Santa Barbara County from 2009 to 2010.

Among his revelations: Officer Beutel exaggerated her DUI arrest records, lied in police reports, withheld exculpatory evidence from defendants, witnessed blood test waivers for arrestees that were forged, and committed perjury in federal and state cases prior to becoming a Santa Barbara police officer in 2005. When Lance presented the News-Press with his findings, which ran to more than 2,700 pages of documentation, we could not turn a blind eye to the facts as presented. The result was a series of more than 19,200 words that is documented with more than 230 factual annotations. Many of the documents supporting his findings came from the files of the Santa Barbara Police Department.

Once we received his evidence, we hired outside counsel and subjected the series to a rigorous vetting. We are confident that every substantive finding in the series is factual, and we unequivocally stand behind Lance’s reporting. As to the charges that the News-Press was wrong in publishing a series by an author who was arrested himself by officer Beutel, the issue is not whether this was his motivation for the series — it clearly wasn’t — but rather whether the allegations were correct.

Further, the Santa Barbara Police Department’s press release has credibility issues of its own. The assertion that, “Every (Kasi Beutel) case has been heard in an open courtroom before a Superior Court judge” is misleading. It has not been disclosed how many of her arrestees had charges dropped or dismissed. And the claim that “every one of her arrest cases have been reviewed by the District
Attorney’s Office” begs the question: If Kasi Beutel is lying in reports, how can the DA effectively evaluate whether her arrests are valid?

The Santa Barbara Police Department is the only major law enforcement agency in the county without video equipment in patrol units that would validate whether officer Beutel (or any other officer) is being truthful about probable cause for stops, DUI investigations or field sobriety tests. If there is a scintilla of evidence that the city’s “Top DUI officer” is lying and potentially framing innocent drivers for the repugnant crime of driving under the influence, the Santa Barbara City Council needs to demand full disclosure from the Police Department. And Kasi Beutel’s creditability is at the heart of the matter.

Just yesterday before Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge George Eskin in another Beutel DUI case, a defense lawyer sought to question her under oath about the findings in our series. But District Attorney Sanford Horowitz repeatedly objected and Judge Eskin sustained most of his objections. During the hearing, officer Beutel went to the extraordinary length of hiring an outside attorney who repeatedly schooled her on how to answer the questions. When a police officer has to “lawyer up” when her credibility is challenged on the stand, it says something about that officer’s credibility.

Rather than attacking Lance, the messenger, as some in the media have done, and while some in the Police Department circle the wagons to defend officer Beutel, the News-Press supports a comprehensive, outside investigation of her cases by an independent third party or special prosecutor.

Driving drunk or impaired is a terrible crime. But the prospect that a senior DUI officer is operating outside the law is even more abhorrent.

As Justice Brandeis said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” The News-Press has taken the first step toward shining a light on this issue.

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