A judge reluctantly granted another delay Tuesday in the case against an Atwater police detective charged with drunken driving and hit-and-run.
Detective Lisa Howard has pleaded not guilty to the charges in connection with a 2013 vehicle crash on Augusta Lane in Atwater. Howard was off duty at the time.
Kirk McAllister, the attorney defending the 33-year-old detective, strenuously objected to further delays in the case, citing his client’s right to a speedy trial.
Judge Paul C. Lo granted the delay after learning a key witness in the case, Officer David Sarginson, was admitted to a hospital’s emergency room Tuesday. The reason for Sarginson’s sudden visit to the hospital was not stated in court and it was not clear if the medical attention was related to the major injuries Sarginson suffered during an unrelated on-duty vehicle collision on March 18.
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Sarginson was knocked unconscious during the collision and suffered numerous serious injuries, authorities reported.
McAllister said continuous delays in the case have hampered his client’s right to a speedy trial and said there’s still no timetable for Sarginson to return to work. “There’s no guarantee he will be able to testify, no medical proof he’ll be ready in eight to 10 weeks,” McAllister said.
Prosecutors with the Merced County District Attorney’s Office told the judge that Sarginson had been subpoenaed to come to court Tuesday and initially requested a warrant for the officer when he did not appear. McAllister repeatedly described the request for the warrant as “mean-spirited.”
Prosecutors noted warrants are requested as a standard practice when a witness fails to obey a subpoena and said that after they learned why Sarginson did not arrive in court, they backed off the request.
“After learning the officer had been admitted to the (emergency room), we obviously asked the judge to cancel the warrant,” said Steve Slocum, supervising deputy district attorney.
Two notes from physicians treating Sarginson were presented to the judge, both stating Sarginson was not physically able to testify this week, but neither letter gave any timetable for when the injured officer may return to duty.
Sara Rosenthal, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case, argued that Sarginson’s health demonstrated “good cause” for further delays in the nearly 2-year-old case.
Sarginson is likely the key witness in the case against Howard and, according to police reports, was the only officer who spoke with Howard inside her home after the crash.
However, he is not the only witness in the case and Rosenthal on Tuesday said prosecutors have no intention of dismissing the case against Howard.
Howard is charged with crashing her personal vehicle Aug. 1, 2013, on Augusta Lane and leaving the scene, according to police reports.
Sarginson, in his report, said Howard told him she planned to tell CHP officers she started drinking after the crash when she arrived home. Sarginson specifically noted in his report that 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 called it the longest period of leave he’s dealt with in his career and that it has hampered the already understaffed Police Department.
The judge ordered both sides to return to court Aug. 11 and said he would not likely grant any further delays in the case. The judge also took the unusual step of apologizing to Howard for Tuesday’s delay.
“Ms. Howard, I apologize to you. I know it’s not your fault,” Lo said. “I know it’s not anybody’s fault.”
Rob Parsons: 209-385-2482