Assemblyman Acquitted of DWI, Convicted on Lesser Charge

Judge sentences him to $300 fine and 90-day license suspension

By Jennifer Peltz
|  Thursday, Mar 25, 2010  |  Updated 6:27 PM EDT
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Adam Clayton Powell arrives in court, is tested for DWI.

Adam Clayton Powell arrives in court, is tested for DWI.

A defiant state Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV was acquitted Thursday of driving while intoxicated but convicted of a related traffic violation in a case he blasted as a series of police lies.

"When cops lie, anybody can be guilty," Powell said outside the courthouse, accusing the officer who arrested him of fabricating claims about his driving, behavior and sobriety during the March 2008 incident on a Manhattan highway.

A spokesman for the officer's union didn't immediately return a telephone call.

Jurors deliberated about two hours before finding Powell, a Democrat and the son of a prominent congressman and civil rights activist, guilty of driving while his ability was impaired by alcohol, a violation. The panel cleared him of a misdemeanor DWI charge.

Powell, who is considering running for Congress this year, was immediately sentenced to a $300 fine and a 90-day license suspension.

Powell said he respected the verdict but disagreed that he was impaired or driving erratically after drinking two cocktails and a bit of a third over a five-hour span during a night out at a New York Knicks game and a bar. He was stopped around 2:30 a.m. on March 6, 2008, while driving his then-girlfriend's rented car with her asleep in the back seat.

Police Officer Donald Schneider testified that Powell was swerving within a lane on the Henry Hudson Parkway, had alcohol on his breath and showed a card identifying himself as an assemblyman before handing over his driver's license.

"What does he pull out? His proverbial 'get-out-of-jail-free card,'" Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Shawn McMahon told jurors in a closing argument Wednesday. "That is incredibly telling evidence of what was going on in (Powell's) mind."

Powell contested all of it, saying Schneider recognized his name from his driver's license and grew testy.

"He saw he had a big fish, and he wasn't going to let go," Powell, who didn't testify at his trial, said outside court.

A roadside breath test showed Powell had been drinking, though it registered less than the legal limit for DWI, Schneider said.

A police video shows Powell refused a more precise test at a police precinct, though he offered to take it after learning he was being arrested under a law allowing a DWI charge if a driver refuses a test. He was told his change of heart came too late.

Powell completed various other sobriety tests, such as touching his nose with his eyes closed, with little apparent difficulty, the video showed. He viewed the video as vindication.

"I have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing that I feel guilty about," he said.

Prosecutors have called the officer's testimony credible.

Powell, 47, has been an assemblyman since 2000 and was a city councilman from 1992 to 1997. His East Harlem district touches on a boulevard that bears the name of his late father, Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

He is weighing a run for his father's congressional seat, now held by Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel. Rangel — who defeated Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 1970 — stepped aside this month as chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee after the ethics committee reported he violated House gift rules.

Adam Clayton Powell IV was part of a group of lawmakers who successfully pushed last year for state laws aimed at diverting more nonviolent drug dealers and users to treatment, rather than prison. He also has co-sponsored proposals calling for cars, in some circumstances, to be equipped with devices that require a driver to pass a breath test before starting the engine.

McMahon urged Manhattan Criminal Court judge Larry Stephen to require Powell to use one. The judge refused, saying he had never imposed such a requirement for a driving-while-impaired conviction.

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