Silver Lining to San Francisco Ladder DUI Dismissal

In a ruling that seems to have surprised the media and many firefighters, the drunk driving case against San Francisco firefighter Michael Quinn has been dismissed. Quinn was driving a ladder truck that struck and nearly killed a motorcyclist, Jack Frazier, on June 29, 2013. A security camera captured the dramatic incident.

What made the case so noteworthy was the conduct of Quinn and his coworkers after the accident. Quinn was taken to a nearby bar, the Chieftain Irish Pub, where he began chugging pitchers of water. Quinn then left the scene before he could be sent for alcohol testing. His coworkers neglected to mention their post-accident excursion into the Chieftain to investigators and denied having any knowledge of where Quinn was. That story changed once investigators showed them security video from the bar as well as their text messages to/from Quinn. Several members were subsequently disciplined for their role in the coverup.

When Quinn returned to his fire station several hours after the accident he was sent for testing that indicated his blood alcohol level was at .18, over twice the legal limit. For some reason, the testing was originally performed by the fire department using a fire department breathalyzer as opposed to a criminal breathalyzer administered by the police department. An article by SFGate explains what occurred in detail, and questions (1) why the police did not perform the testing, and (2) why investigators delayed the testing until Quinn could get union representation.

Following the accident, Quinn was charged with drunk driving, but those charges were quickly dropped. The case was later presented to a grand jury who indicted Quinn on three counts of drunk driving. Last Friday Superior Court Judge Kay Tsenin dismissed all three of those charges, referencing problems with the evidence and likening the investigation to the “keystone cops”.

While the media is having a field day with the ruling and prosecutors are vowing to appeal (I can’t help but think of the epic quote by Mel Brooks’ character Governor Le Petomane “we’ve got to protect our phoney baloney jobs, gentlemen!!!!”) there is a silver lining to this apparently dark cloud.

First, proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Quinn was intoxicated at the time the accident occurred would be a tall task indeed. The fact he was found to be intoxicated four hours after the accident – when much of the intervening time cannot be accounted for – is irrelevant to whether he was impaired at the time of the accident – and that fact creates a serious problem for the prosecution. Sure, his post-accident behavior was clearly that of a guilty person, but that alone is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt that his blood alcohol level was at .08 or higher. And that assumes the evidence of Quinn’s .18 BAL is reliable and admissable… something Judge Tzenin’s ruling calls into question!!!

Even if prosecutors were somehow able to convince a jury of his guilt, IMHO it is highly unlikely the verdict would be sustained as a matter of law based upon the evidence that is publicly available.

The silver lining: once the criminal charges are dispensed with, Quinn’s 5th Amendment right to remain silent is extinguished. In other words, in any future litigation, Quinn will be required to take the witness stand and answer some pretty hard questions – questions he does not have to answer while the criminal proceedings are ongoing.

The injured motorcyclist, Jack Frazier, has filed a multi-million dollar civil suit against the City and County of San Francisco as well as Quinn personally. That suit will likely bankrupt Quinn, if he is not already bankrupt. He resigned from SFFD following the incident sparing the department the spectacle of termination proceedings.

Assuming that prosecutors do not appeal Judge Tsenin’s ruling, Quinn will have to testify in Frazier’s suit with no Constitutional right to remain silent. He will have to explain why he was chugging the water in the Chieftain, why he left the scene, and what he did during the intervening hours between the accident and his return to his fire station. He will also have to answer questions about drinking prior to the accident, the knowledge of other firefighters about his condition, and whether the firehouse culture (including his officers) in SFFD tolerated his drinking. These are questions Quinn could successfully have avoided having to answer while the criminal charges are pending or possible.

Maybe I am the only one out there hoping the prosecutors rethink their vow to appeal Judge Tsenin’s ruling.

Here is the SFGate coverage.

This news video provides coverage about the suit that Frazier filed. It includes the surveillance video showing the accident.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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