TRAVERSE CITY — Michael Estes’ drunken driving case ended with a judge handing down a sentence crafted to help Traverse City’s mayor “better” his life through 18 months of probation and alcohol treatment programs.
Eighty-sixth District Court Judge Michael Stepka on Tuesday praised Estes for accepting responsibility and being candid in a substance abuse assessment, but a sentence “above and beyond” was warranted based on all the facts.
“This is not really a first-offense situation,” Stepka said.
Estes, 63, was driving home from a candidate forum on Oct. 23 when a Traverse City police officer spotted his pickup truck weave through bike and turn lanes on Eighth Street. He failed field sobriety tests and was arrested on an operating while intoxicated charge, with a tested blood-alcohol content of .12, above the state’s .08 legal limit for driving.
Traverse City voters re-elected Estes as mayor on Nov. 5 — one day after pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of driving while impaired. He maintained his self-enforced public silence on specifics in the case through the 12-minute sentencing hearing on Tuesday.
“I’ve addressed the public and this court as far as the issues involved, and I really have nothing else to add, your honor,” he told Stepka.
Estes didn’t say one word outside the courtroom when asked for comment by a Record-Eagle reporter.
Stepka cited three “aggravating factors” as concerns that factored into the sentence: Estes’ consumption of alcohol before and after the candidate forum, his poor driving and, especially, the fact his vehicle strayed into an Eighth Street bike lane.
“This is still a sensitive and raw issue for the public since July 5,” Stepka said, alluding to the hit-and-run death of Traverse City bicyclist Kelly Ann Boyce. “Fortunately, there were not any cyclists in the bike lane at that time.”
Stepka also said Estes’ previous 1994 reckless driving conviction -- in which alcohol was a factor and involved a two-vehicle crash in Bellaire that led to a civil lawsuit -- made the case different than a typical first-offense charge.
The Grand Traverse County prosecutor’s office generally offers a plea to a reduced charge in first-offense drunken driving cases with a blood-alcohol content below .13 and do not involve accident or injury. Prosecutor Bob Cooney previously said his office didn’t know about Estes’ 1994 plea to reckless driving that dropped an operating while impaired charge.
Stepka said the court is “duty bound” to accept the reduced charge, but noted as a practical matter there’s little difference from an operating while intoxicated charge in terms of penalties. He said Estes’ candor answering difficult questions in a presentence report and a substance abuse evaluation helped him craft the sentence.
“You are accepting responsibility for what occurred and disclosed things that we’re going to provide the resources for you to work with probation and hopefully turn the alcohol issue around and better your life, so to speak,” Stepka said.
Stepka sentenced Estes to 18 months of probation -- six months more than in a typical driving while impaired sentence -- and stipulated he must attend three 12-step meetings a week, find a sponsor in the next 90 days and complete three days of community service. Estes must attend outpatient counseling and a spend an “Impact Weekend” at a facility that educates people on the ramifications of drinking and driving.
He must also pay $1,050 in fines and fees, submit to daily morning breath tests and discretionary alcohol and drug tests and not use alcohol or drugs during his probation or be present in bars, casinos or establishments that serve alcohol by the glass.
Michigan Secretary of State records state Estes’ license will be restricted until Feb. 18, 2014, meaning he can only drive under certain conditions.