The drunken driving trial of an Atwater police detective could be dismissed if a key witness in the case, who is also an Atwater police officer, is unable to testify due to unrelated injuries suffered in an on-duty vehicle collision.
Detective Lisa Howard, 33, has pleaded not guilty to hit-and-run and drunken driving charges in connection with a 2013 vehicle crash on Augusta Lane in Atwater. Howard was off duty at the time.
Kirk McAllister, Howard’s attorney, asked a Merced County judge to dismiss the case, arguing that with the witness, Officer David Sarginson, on medical leave for at least two more months, the case can’t move forward, violating his client’s right to a speedy trial.
Sarginson, 39, suffered major injuries March 18 when his patrol car collided with another vehicle at East Bellevue Road and Granite Drive in Atwater, according to the California Highway Patrol.
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Sara Rosenthal, the Merced County deputy district attorney prosecuting the case against Howard, asked the judge for more time to determine whether Sarginson could be cleared medically to testify.
Judge Paul C. Lo denied the defense request to dismiss the case, but said prosecutors had one week to determine whether Sarginson could testify. Lo indicated Sarginson is expected to remain on leave for a minimum of two more months.
Lo ordered both sides to return to court Tuesday.
“There’s absolutely no telling when this officer will be back,” McAllister said after Tuesday’s hearing. “Mrs. Howard wants a speedy trial.”
According to police reports, Sarginson was the only officer who spoke with Howard inside her home after the crash.
Howard is charged with crashing her personal vehicle Aug. 1, 2013, on Augusta Lane and leaving the scene, according to police reports.
Sarginson said Howard told him she planned to tell CHP officers that she started drinking after the crash when she arrived home, according to a police report. Sarginson noted he did not see any bottles of alcohol in her home.
Howard has been on paid administrative leave since the incident. Police Chief Frank Pietro has said it is the longest period of leave he’s dealt with in his career and that it has hampered the already understaffed Police Department.
McAllister said there was “no truth whatsoever” to questions that Howard sought delays at the beginning of the case, then demanded a speedy trial when it worked to her advantage.
“She wants her trial. We had to conduct our investigation and those things take some time,” McAllister said. “But when that was done, she has absolutely wanted to have the trial. She has the right to a speedy trial.”
Rob Parsons: 209-385-2482