Md. driver accused of hitting judge who suspended DWI term in 1998

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010; B01

The tragedy of it all was immediately clear: A suspected drunk driver, at 3 in the afternoon, swings his Chevy Tahoe into oncoming traffic.

"He's going to hit us!" Ellen Collier, 81, told her husband, Edwin, 85, who was driving their 2001 Honda Accord.

The strange coincidence took longer to sort out: The Honda's driver, retired Montgomery County District judge Edwin Collier, had presided over thousands of drunken-driving cases, including one in 1998 involving the Tahoe's driver. Collier had spared him jail time, even though the man had been arrested on drinking-and-driving charges twice in three months.

"It's just a total irony," John Kudel, an attorney for the Colliers, said Friday. "This shouldn't happen to anyone. It certainly shouldn't have happened to them."

In the latest case, the man driving the Tahoe -- Rene E. Fernandez, 45 -- is due in court Wednesday to face trial on eight charges related to the August crash, including causing life-threatening injuries while intoxicated.

Ellen Collier, who is now 82, suffered a compound leg fracture, fractured ribs, a fractured hip and neck injuries, Kudel said. She has had five operations, including one to fuse vertebrae in her neck, and must use a walker. Edwin Collier, now 86 and who as a retired judge was brought back to hear cases as recently as last year, suffered a broken leg and fractured ribs. He must use a cane.

The diminished mobility forced the couple to move to a retirement community from their home in Bethesda. "Their whole life has changed irreparably," he said

Fernandez was barely hurt. At the crash scene, he walked about in flip-flops, grinned widely and seemed unconcerned about the Colliers' injuries as other motorists rushed to their aide, according to Montgomery police reports.

Fernandez was tested at more than twice the legal limit for alcohol, the reports say.

His attorney, John Severt, who represented him in 1998 as well, declined to comment.

Kudel said the Colliers did not want to be interviewed for this article.

Cases from 1998

Back in 1998, Fernandez was a 33-year-old employee of a restaurant in Gaithersburg. About 2 a.m. Jan. 21, a police officer saw him make an errant right turn in a station wagon, spin out of control and stop. At a police station, Fernandez's blood-alcohol level registered 0.14, over the legal limit.

Three months later, at 1 a.m., an officer approached a Chevrolet Cavalier idling in the middle of a parking lot outside the restaurant. The officer flashed his high beams, but the driver "did not appear to react," according to the report.

Outside the car, Fernandez smelled of alcohol, swayed while standing and did so poorly on a one-leg-stand test that police stopped it because they worried that he was going to fall and hurt himself, the report says. Fernandez was charged with drunken driving but declined to take a blood-alcohol test, according to police reports.

The first case went before Judge Stephen P. Johnson on June 15. Fernandez pleaded guilty to drinking and driving. Johnson entered a finding of "probation before judgment," which allows defendants to not have the matter treated as a conviction. Three months later, Fernandez went before Collier in the parking lot case and pleaded guilty.

Collier sentenced him to 60 days in jail but suspended the term. Collier also sentenced him to a year of supervised probation and ordered him to abstain from alcohol use and submit to alcohol and drug testing, according to court records.

The sentence handed down by Collier in 1998 didn't deviate from standard sentences in the county at the time, according to veteran Montgomery lawyers.

Fernandez appears to have not been charged with drunken driving for the next 11 years, according to a check of online records.

The 2009 crash

On Aug. 21, 2009, he was driving fast, north on Woodfield Road near the Montgomery airpark, when he started swerving, crossing into the oncoming lane and veering back into the northbound section, where he sideswiped a Dodge Dakota to his right, according to the accident report.

From there, he swerved back into the oncoming lane.

"I thought he was going to hit me," said Janice Sibley, who was driving south. "He was out of control."

Fernandez kept veering and slammed into the Colliers, according to the accident report. The impact was so great that the fronts of both vehicles lifted off the ground, Sibley said.

She got out and placed her hand on Ellen Collier's shoulder, telling her she would be okay but watching her drift in and out of consciousness. "You could see in her eyes she wanted help," Sibley recalled.

The Colliers were taken to Suburban Hospital.

Until recently, the Colliers had enjoyed active retirements, playing with grandchildren and riding bicycles. Edwin Collier officially retired in 1993 but worked so many cases as a retired judge that after exhausting his yearly stipends he continued to preside over cases without compensation, Kudel said.

Kudel said that Collier doesn't remember the 1998 case and until recently wasn't aware of it. "He doesn't harbor any ill will toward Mr. Fernandez," Kudel said.

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