Judge Bars Webber from Driving in Md.
By Philip P. Pan
Tuesday, May 12, 1998; Page B1
A Maryland judge has barred Washington Wizards star Chris Webber from driving in the state for 120 days, punishing him for refusing to submit a blood sample for testing after a Prince George's County police officer concluded he was driving under the influence of marijuana in January.
In a written opinion released yesterday, Administrative Law Judge Stephen J. Nichols rejected Webber's claim that he failed various sobriety tests because police had blasted him with pepper spray during the Jan. 20 arrest. Instead, Nichols questioned Webber's credibility and said portions of his testimony in the case "sounded hollow" and were "unconvincing" and "patently self-serving."
The judge also concluded that Webber "initiated a physical conflict with an armed, uniformed police officer" who stopped him for speeding. "That is a gross display of a lack of judgment," Nichols wrote, "and consistent with the possibility" that Webber was too impaired to drive safely.
The judge's ruling applies only to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration's case against Webber for refusing to take the blood test. Webber faces a separate trial this year on the criminal charges arising from the incident in Landover, including assault, resisting arrest and marijuana possession.
Webber's attorneys promised to appeal the judge's ruling and request a stay of his suspension order. They said Webber, who has a Michigan driver's license and is free to drive outside Maryland, will rely on friends to drive him to and from his Mitchellville home until the request is heard.
"Chris is very disappointed. He doesn't feel that justice was served," said Fallishaw Erwin, Webber's agent. "We think there's no basis for this decision. It's so far-fetched, I can't believe it."
"We take very strong exception to him saying Chris initiated a physical conflict [with police]," Erwin added. "Chris never touched him or struck out at him. That's not Chris. He's sitting in the car with his seat belts on. He's talking on the cellphone and he got sprayed."
Under Maryland law, the MVA can suspend a person's driving privileges in the state for 120 days for refusing to submit a blood sample requested by police. To obtain the suspension, the state must prove police had "reasonable grounds to believe" the motorist was driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
In his ruling, Nichols said police had many reasons to believe Webber was under the influence of marijuana. In addition to allegedly assaulting the officer who pulled him over, Webber refused to talk directly to the officer perhaps because he didn't want the officer to smell his breath, Nichols said.
The judge also noted that police found the butt of a marijuana cigar and marijuana ashes in Webber's car and that one officer smelled marijuana on his breath. Finally, the judge said, Webber failed several sobriety tests, losing his balance while walking a straight line and missing his nose when asked to touch it with the tip of his finger.
Webber had testified during a hearing last month that he failed the tests because he was still suffering the effects of being blasted by pepper spray. A defense witness, a physician at Potomac Hospital, also testified the pepper spray rendered the tests invalid.
But Nichols concluded that Cpl. Michael Rose, the officer who examined Webber, was simply a "more credible and reliable" witness than both Webber and the defense expert.
Rose, who has received special training in conducting tests to determine whether a motorist is on drugs, said he began examining Webber more than four hours after the traffic stop enough time for the pepper spray to wear off.
Noting that Webber never complained he was still suffering from the pepper spray before or during the sobriety tests, Nichols concurred with the police officer.
Erwin, Webber's agent, said he expected an appeals court to see the matter differently. "The judge chose not to believe a doctor, someone with 11 years of experience, but a police officer with no medical background," he said. "How could he write off a doctor's entire testimony?"
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