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COLUMN

Paul Moss traffic stop: Special treatment or honest misunderstanding?

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Hear an excerpt from the police dispatch recordings related to the June 2 traffic stop of Allen County Councilman Paul Moss, allegedly showing Sheriff Ken Fries' intervention in the case:

Claims by sheriff and councilman at odds with official records

Saturday, June 9, 2012 - 7:03 am

Paul Moss insists he was just doing what any good parent would do when he responded to a plea for help from his 21-year-old daughter and five equally inebriated friends early last Saturday morning. Instead, the same phone call that awakened him plunged the Allen County Council member into a nightmarish week of insinuations that he had sought or received special treatment from fellow Republican Sheriff Ken Fries after a subsequent traffic stop.

After speaking with Moss and Fries, I can't verify their claims of innocence but I do find them credible, despite at least two official records that seem to suggest something else.

According to a Fort Wayne Police Department report, a Sheriff's Department officer stopped Moss' black 2011 Cadillac on Dupont Road at 2:30 a.m., smelled alcohol in the car, then requested assistance from a city officer doing drunken-driving patrols in the area. As the Journal Gazette first reported, Moss refused a field sobriety test and placed a call to Fries, who somehow became involved, and Moss was subsequently allowed to leave.

A case of one influential friend looking out for another? Certainly some people – not all of them in the media – are open to that possibility.

“It is what it looks like. You figure it out,” said County Prosecutor Karen Richards, adding that the vast majority of people who refuse a portable test are taken to the jail for a more-thorough evaluation.

But looks can be deceiving, and that's just what Moss and Fries insist has happened here.

Moss says he was in bed Saturday morning when daughter Carolyn called. She and five friends were at a bar, realized they shouldn't drive, and called for a ride. He picked them up and was taking them to a friend's house when he was stopped for reasons that remain unclear, since the officer didn't say and Moss didn't ask.

“I was texting one of (Carolyn's) friends,” Moss said. “Maybe I was swerving.”

But even though Moss admits to having a “few beers” at a golf outing earlier in the day, he said he had not consumed alcohol for at least six hours prior to the stop. The smell of alcohol the officer noticed came from the five young people packed into his car, Moss insists – not from him.

But if that explains what a middle-aged politician is doing in a booze-tinged car with a bunch of 20-somethings at 2:30 a.m., it doesn't resolve the questions driving the controversy:

If Moss knew he wasn't close to being legally drunk, why refuse the portable sobriety test?

Why, if Moss did indeed offer to go downtown for an official test, was he let go instead?

Why did Moss call Fries if he wasn't seeking a get-out-of-jail free card, and how did the sheriff respond?

And if Fries didn't exert his authority to help Moss, why did the city police report and dispatch recordings indicate that he “got involved” and instructed officers to “disregard any further”?

Moss said he refused the field test out of concern its results would be unreliable, even though he now second-guesses that decision. While waiting for police to take him downtown, Moss said, his daughter was “crying, upset and frustrated, so I called (Fries). I didn't ask for any special treatment and never told anybody I was on County Council. I just asked if he could expedite things.”

And that's all Fries said he did. He talked to the county officer on the scene and, after discussing Moss' demeanor, told the officer to use his discretion. After satisfying himself that Moss had not been drinking, he allowed the councilman to leave, Moss said.

Fries said he never talked to any city officers and his voice is on none of the recordings, so how could they know he wanted them to disregard any further efforts to test Moss' blood-alcohol content? Fries asked. Perhaps they inferred that after talking to the county officer at the scene, he suggested, adding: “I'll take calls from anybody. I did nothing wrong."

So were all the news reports about possible special treatment for a public official simply based on a misunderstanding? Certainly Fries has not helped his own case by seeming to minimize or ridicule the legitimacy of the inquiry.

Police Chief Rusty York defended his officers' handling of the case, and said refusal to take a field sobriety test can be viewed as probable cause to investigate further. Although he has received calls from people wanting help with a case, York said he “always defers to the officer on the scene. They're there, I'm not. I trust their judgment.”

Of course, that's exactly what Fries insists he did.

“I feel terrible for (Fries),” Moss said. “People want to believe in conspiracies.”

This one probably would not exist Moss not called Fries, or if Fries had not taken the call. But because they did, we can never know whether Moss was a dangerous driver who got an undeserved pass, or a sober and concerned father unfairly maligned.

But it would be nice if some independent authority would at least investigate which version of events – Fries' or the FWPD's – is closer to the truth.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.