Montgomery County police and State's Attorney Andrew Sonner said yesterday that they have decided to file three traffic charges, including driving while intoxicated, against Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), who allegedly failed three roadside sobriety tests after he was stopped by police March 25 on a Wheaton road. Stokes has denied the allegations.
Police said in a written statement yesterday that after consultation with Sonner's office, "a decision has been reached to bring charges" against Stokes. The statement said the prosecutor's office requested that the police charge Stokes with driving while intoxicated, failure to obey an automatic signal and failure to keep right of center.
Sgt. Harry Geehreng, a spokesman for the department, said police were attempting late yesterday to arrange a meeting with the congressman to hand him the traffic citations. A driver is not considered formally charged until having received a traffic citation and signed it.
Stokes could not be reached for comment yesterday. Adrienne Gray, a spokeswoman in his congressional office, said Stokes had not been officially notified by Montgomery County of any charges against him.
"If and when he's notified, he may have a comment then," Gray said.
Police had said earlier that Stokes would not be charged because the officer at the scene had failed to give the congressman a breath test, which police said was required under Maryland law before any charges are brought. Sonner said yesterday, however, that a review of previous cases showed that failure to give the test did not bar prosecution.
In a news conference Monday in Cleveland, his hometown, Stokes asserted that police were wrong when they said he failed the sobriety tests, and he challenged prosecutors to bring charges if they have a case. Stokes, a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, also charged that police and the media would have handled the incident differently if he were white.
In his statement Monday, made before several hundred supporters, Stokes said he had not been drinking before he was stopped by police. He denied police statements that he had been driving on the wrong side of six-lane Randolph Road, ran a red light and made an illegal U-turn.
Stokes was stopped by police in Wheaton about 2 a.m. March 25, about two hours after a late-night session of Congress adjourned.
At the time of the incident, county police said that Stokes had claimed immunity from prosecution because he was en route from Congress to his home in Wheaton. Later, police reversed their position and said Stokes did not ask for immunity, but that they had been told by U.S. Capitol Police that he was entitled to it.
Police then said that Stokes would not be charged because the officer at the scene failed to give the congressman a breath test, which police said was required under Maryland law. It was that contention that prosecutors reviewed before determining yesterday that Stokes could be charged, Sonner said.
Sonner said his office reviewed Maryland law and determined that there is nothing prohibiting police from issuing traffic charges against a driver who had not been given a Breathalyzer test to determine blood alcohol content. In a 1981 case, upheld by a Maryland appeals court, a man charged with driving while intoxicated was found guilty although police had failed to offer him a breath test at the scene, according to Sonner. Without such a test, prosecutors present evidence of police observations of driving behavior and roadside sobriety tests, Sonner said.
Driving while intoxicated carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine, according to the prosecutor's office. A driver could be found guilty of the less-serious offense of "driving while under the influence" of alcohol, which carries a maximum two-month sentence and $500 fine.
Sonner said the case would likely come to trial in Montgomery County District Court, which hears traffic and other misdemeanor cases, within 60 to 90 days.