Assistant D.A. speaks to Rotary

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Assistant D.A. speaks to RotaryThe tragic consequences of impaired driving and increasing challenges in maintaining public safety were among the key topics addressed by Scott Spielman, assistant D.A. in the Kern County District Attorney’s Office, when he spoke to the China Lake Rotary Club members and guests at Wednesday’s luncheon.

Spielman outlined for his listeners his experience — which includes 23 years in the KCDA, six years in his present position, a stint in the military and aspirations for a career in law enforcement before “happening into” law school.

“The bad news is, for the last five or six years, the laws in Sacramento have made it very difficult,” for those tasked with upholding law enforcement and criminal justice, he said.

AB 109, Prop 47 and Prop 57 have been implemented to diminish the number of incarcerated convicts while simultaneously downgrading felony charges and watering down sentencing guidelines.

Although an attempt to eliminate the bail-bond system failed earlier this year, it is rumored that it will be reintroduced.

Spielman said that only the most violent felons are held in jail, leaving those facing misdemeanor charges to show up on good faith.

Only 30-40 percent of those facing misdemeanor charges show up in court, he said. “If that happens at the felony level, it will only cause further chaos.”

Compounding the challenges for those trying to maintain the criminal justice system are fiscal challenges that have resulted in lost funding and eliminated positions in his office.

These factors have contributed to a significant increase in crime, he said. “People with substance-abuse problems need $200 to $300 per day.” Since most addicts lack those kinds of resources, “Most turn to crime — which hits the rest of us in property crimes.”

Citizens can protect themselves to a degree by keeping valuables locked up and out of sight, he said.

As legal jobs go, Spielman said, it doesn’t get better than being a prosecutor — whose loyalty is to the pursuit of justice, rather than the personal interest of a client.

This passion extends to his role as president of “Life Interrupted,” a program started by a police officer who grew weary of seeing young children pay the ultimate price when adults chose to get behind the wheel of a vehicle while impaired.

“If I can show that a person knew it was dangerous, that they could kill someone by deciding to drive impaired, there is implied malice and I can prosecute for second-degree murder.”

While the vast majority of a prosecutor’s actions are reactionary, demonstrating to young drivers the risks of impaired driving is one way the prosecutor can be proactive.

The “Life Interrupted” program has been presented in more than 100 schools with the intent to changecasual thinking and behavior regarding driving under the influence.

“This is not a feel-good presentation. What I’m showing you is what we show to the high school kids to get their attention.”

The presentation included frantic phone calls to 9-1-1, photos that starkly depict the wreckage of collisions and faces of often-young children killed in these incidents.

“I got involved for the same reason the police sergeant got involved — I got sick of handling these cases,” said Spielman. One of his cases involved four families losing children in one crash.

In 2001 Michael Curtis, then 22 years old, met 20-year-old Jeff Chaffin at a party. Chaffin reportedly agreed to accompany Curtis on a beer run. In the back seat were three girls, ranging in age from 13 to 14, who “met” Curtis in an online chat room and agreed to meet up with him.

With all four passengers in the car, Curtis was allegedly driving 100 miles per hour, through heavy fog, on 7th Standard Road in Bakersfield. Multiple witnesses called 9-1-1, reporting that the vehicle collided and caught fire.

Curtis reportedly escaped the vehicle and fled — leaving his passengers trapped inside. Bystanders reported hearing screams coming from the car, but failed in their attempts to extinguish the blaze. By the time emergency services responded to the scene, the victims had all perished.

Curtis was not discovered until 12 hours after the accident. By then, too much time had elapsed. “I could not show what his impairment level was.”

Spielman sent investigators out into the oil field where Curtis worked. Onsite, they found another employer who had driven on that same road under similar conditions. “He said to Curtis, ‘You can’t drive like that in the fog, or you’re going to kill someone.’ … that evidence was used to charge [Curtis] with second-degree murder.”

Curtis served 15 years before facing his parole hearing last year. “He is not the worst person in prison, but he has also not addressed his problems,” said Spielman. Curtis was also convicted of statutory rape, “and he blamed his victims … he did not have any awareness of his risky behaviors.”

Curtis was sent back to prison for at least seven more years.

Spielman stated that by increasing awareness of these risks to young people, Life Interrupted presentations prevent incidents like this — “But you don’t see that because they don’t do it.

“Instead, kids call home … their parents may not be happy they were out drinking, but they are happy their kids are calling them.”

Since Spielman has been working as a prosecutor, additional tools have been developed to hold impaired drivers accountable. “When I first started, even judges hated calling these murder cases.”

But if someone takes a life through negligence, he said, “they should be sentenced 15 years to life to protect the rest of us.”

Spielman acknowledged that with the imminent legalization of recreational marijuana use, he expects impaired-driving incidents to increase.

The district attorney’s office conducts between 2,000 and 3,000 toxicology tests each year to screen for drug use in drivers suspected to be impaired. “Out of all of our testings, 70 percent test positive for marijuana,” he said.

Kern County also has the dubious distinction of convicting the first person in the nation identified as having killing someone while driving under the influence of marijuana. That man, driving 90 miles per hour on a main thoroughfare in Bakersfield, lost control of his vehicle and collided with a car carrying an older couple, killing the husband.

“The only thing he was concerned with after the accident was whether they were going to take away his medical marijuana,” said Spielman. “With recreational use, I expect it to get worse.”

The main challenge in prosecuting drivers impaired by marijuana, he said, is that lab tests can only show what is in the system without showing the suspected degree of impairment.

“We have to rely on the police officer’s investigation — observed driving patterns and field sobriety tests — to show that they were impaired.”

Spielman is pursuing the county office of District Attorney, which is presently held by Lisa Green. Green has already announced to the public that she will not seek reelection in 2018. Spielman’s only known opponent is Cynthia Zimmer, who is the supervising deputy district attorney in charge of gang-related criminal prosecution.

Story First Published: 2017-10-06