Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 5, 2013

Mayor Estes pleads guilty to reduced charge

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Mayor Michael Estes stands before Traverse City voters today and asks forgiveness for his recent drunken driving arrest.

On Monday, he stood before 86th District Court Judge Michael Stepka and pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of driving while impaired. Stepka accepted the plea, but said he wanted Estes to answer more questions about his drinking and a past incident before he’s sentenced.

“I don’t want to rush this through,” Stepka said.

Estes, 63, was arrested Oct. 23 on suspicion of drunken driving after a Traverse City police officer spotted his pickup truck weaving through bike and turn lanes on Eighth Street. He was heading home from a candidate forum and a breath test found a blood-alcohol content of .12, above the state’s .08 legal limit.

Stepka ordered Estes to complete a thorough substance abuse assessment that details how much, when and where he drank on Oct. 23. He also had questions about a 1994 reckless driving conviction in Antrim County and a subsequent civil suit that alleged Estes’ intoxication led to a head-on crash that injured a woman.

“The goal of this sentence is not only to protect the public, but to provide you with appropriate rehabilitation and the things you need so this doesn’t happen again,” Stepka said.

Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Bob Cooney said his office offers an impaired driving plea to first-offense drunken driving cases that do not involve accident, injury and a blood-alcohol content below .13.

“It’s not only common, but it’s been policy of (the prosecutor’s) office as long as I’ve been here, and that’s been 20 years,” Cooney said. “It’s important for me to note: Mayor Estes was treated just like anyone else; no better, no worse.”

Cooney acknowledged his office didn’t know before the plea offer of Estes’ 1994 guilty plea that dropped an operating while impaired charge; almost all records from the case seem to have been destroyed or expunged years ago. Cooney said it was “frustrating” that court records are incomplete and a state police background check found no criminal history.

“It’s frustrating because it seems that law enforcement should know better than anyone else what someone’s prior criminal history is,” he said. “I’m not saying it would have changed the way I would have viewed the case, but it may have caused me some pause.”

The impaired driving charge has an identical maximum penalty -- 93 days -- to operating while intoxicated, but differs in that a conviction leads to no driver’s license suspension and only four points on a driving record.

Monday’s arraignment and plea took more than 20 minutes. Estes stood without an attorney and said he understood his plea waived the right to a jury trial.

Stepka stressed several times that Estes’ matter was being treated no differently than any other drunken driving case. He set several bond conditions, including that Estes undergo daily breath tests, undergo a drug screen and avoid places that serve alcohol.

“I would do this for anyone who came in under similar circumstances and prior history,” he said.

Stepka disclosed two prior interactions with Estes and said they would not create bias for him. He said he once borrowed metal yard sign frames for a campaign from a commissioner who, in turn, borrowed them from Estes. He also referred to a “slight debacle” in his 2010 judicial campaign in which his opponent, Kevin Elsenheimer, ran a negative “robo call” based on faulty information he received from Estes.

“I just want you to know that in no way ... causes me to have bias or prejudice against you,” Stepka said. “We’re all free to endorse who we want to. I’ve put that behind (me) long ago.”

Neither Estes or Assistant Prosecutor Kit Tholen raised objections.

Estes said in a press conference last week that he would not answer questions about the incident outside of court. He only had this to say Monday when asked for comment by a Record-Eagle reporter:

“Have a nice day.”

A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Dec. 3 at 9 a.m.