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Path of high profile DWI case unusual

May 20, 2018 GMT

Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood’s assertion that he was unaware of the speedy dismissal of DWI charges against a prominent businesswoman is just as troubling and problematic as the initial impression the dismissal made — that the local district attorney’s office was doling out unequal justice based on social status.

The fact that the criminal charges against Catherine Amato, 63, for driving while intoxicated were dismissed less than two months after her arrest raised serious concerns about the administration of justice by LaHood’s office.

The district attorney’s said later that it was his staff, working independently without his knowledge. But this raises other questions. The DA — who lost the primary election to Democratic challenger Joe Gonzales — should have been aware. There was a breakdown somewhere and the office is still his responsibility.

In a news release issued after details of Amato’s case came to light in an Express-News column by Brian Chasnoff, LaHood said he had been “personally unaware of this situation.”

“Once this matter was brought to my attention, I had our office conduct an immediate review of all the evidence in this case. I do not agree with the manner in which the original prosecutor handled this case and arrived at his decision,” LaHood said in his written statement.

Jacob Kemmy, the prosecutor who dismissed the case, told the Express-News he took the action independently because he believed the arresting San Antonio Police Department officer, Jason Portillo, made false statements in both a police report and a search warrant affidavit.

Kemmy, however, acknowledged the video of the arrest shows Amato weaving and veering out of her traffic lane. He resigned the day after talking to the newspaper.

LaHood directed the case be refiled in the interest of justice.

However, even the way the office first tried to refile the case contained errors. His staff tried to refile under the old case number, but the county clerk refused to accept it — and for good reason.

Refiling the case under the old file would have set up the case for automatic dismissal due to double jeopardy laws. Kudos to the county clerk’s staff for catching the error.

A probable cause affidavit filed with the new case indicates Amato’s blood alcohol level at the time of her arrest was 0.12, which is over the legal limit of .08 for driving.

High profile cases do not move quietly through the justice system. It stretches the imagination to think the Amato case moved as far and as quickly as it did without getting on LaHood’s radar or that of others at senior levels. And if it didn’t, why not?

Amato is the owner and operator of multiple Subway sandwich shops and Ruby Tuesday restaurants. She is also the estranged wife of businessman Charlie Amato, chairman and co-founder of SWBC and a Spurs shareholder. The couple has filed for divorce.

Many of the DWI cases filed based on late February arrests occurring at about the same time as Amato’s are still making it slowly through the criminal justice system. Judges who handle DWI cases on a daily basis say it is not unusual to wait months for results of blood analysis, the primary evidence in these type of cases.

Amato was arrested on Feb. 26 and the charges were dismissed on April 24. The case was set for an expunction hearing next month to consider a defense motion to have records in the case sealed.

Between the time of Amato’s arrest and the dismissal of her case, LaHood lost his political party’s nomination for a place on the November ballot in his bid for a second term.

Technically, there is no one to hold LaHood accountable anymore, but that doesn’t mean his job as the highest ranking elected law enforcement official in Bexar County is done.

The decision to refile was warranted. But there’s also this: Elected officials need to remain accountable and do the job they were elected to do regardless of the political winds, especially if they have a role in ensuring access to equal justice.