MERCED -- A former county welfare fraud investigator breathed a sigh of relief recently, after being acquitted of a misdemeanor reckless driving charge by a Merced County jury.
Rockie Xiong, 58, crashed a Merced County fleet vehicle into a guardrail on Ashby Road near Franklin Road, in August last year. He was accused of being under the influence of prescription medication and initially faced a misdemeanor DUI charge. That charge was later amended to misdemeanor reckless driving.
On Thursday, however, jurors found Xiong not guilty after two hours of deliberations, a result Xiong says has finally cleared his name. Xiong's attorney, Deputy Public Defender Eloise Souders, argued her client accidentally took the wrong prescription medications before the crash.
Xiong's blood test after the crash came back positive for the pain medication Vicodin and the sleep medication Ambien, which he'd been prescribed by a doctor.
However, Souders argued Xiong had mistakenly been given the medication by his wife, who thought the pills were for high blood pressure. Sauders said the pills all looked similar.
Xiong's wife testified during the trial.
Souders also pointed out the level of Vicodin in Xiong's system was a relatively small amount, considered at "therapeutic levels" (he'd been prescribed the medication after a leg operation). And while the Ambien caused him to fall asleep at the wheel, the crash itself was nothing more than an accident, Souders said, not reckless driving.
She said the case was stressful for her client, who'd worked for 15 years at the Merced County district attorney's office. Still, Souders said the jury's decision gave her client a sense of vindication. "He wanted to make sure he had a chance to clear his name," she said. "That was very important to Mr. Xiong."
Xiong said he was pleased by the jury's decision, saying justice has finally been done.
Xiong said the prosecutor had offered a plea agreement for negligent driving, which would have resulted in probation. He refused the offer. "I am not guilty. I am not going to plead for anything," he said.
Xiong said he is not a criminal. "This shows the community that I am not that kind of person," he said.
After he was charged, Xiong said he retired from his position based on advice from a union representative. Xiong said he was told it would be better to retire, rather than face termination over the alleged offense.
Deputy District Attorney Katie Gates, the prosecutor in the case, argued Xiong ingested the prescription pills and was too impaired to get behind the wheel.
"I believe there was evidence of a crime and I did my best to present that to the jury," Gates said. "They were not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, and we have to respect that."
The crash was reported the morning of Aug. 2, 2011. The California Highway Patrol responded to the scene around 8 a.m. after receiving a call about the crash. Officer Richard Pereira said he went to speak with Xiong, who was standing at the right rear side of the white 2007 Chevy Impala.
Pereira noticed Xiong was having trouble staying awake. The first witness at the scene reported Xiong was lying face down on the pavement after the crash. Xiong had been traveling eastbound on Ashby Road when the right side of the car struck the guardrail.
Pereira described Xiong's injuries from the crash as slight. Damage to the fleet vehicle was minor, Pereira said, and no one else was hurt in the crash.
City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.