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Jim Kenyon: Even Without Drug DUI Charge, a Long Legal Road Lies Ahead for Scott Pixley

  • Scott Pixley sits in his home with his parents Marvin and Kandy Pixley in Strafford, Vt., on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. Pixley, who works as a dishwasher at Kendal at Hanover, lives with his parents and says most of his savings go toward taking care of them and their home. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Thursday, November 15, 2018

White River Junction — Scott Pixley, the Strafford man who was stopped by Hartford police in July on his way to a pharmacy to pick up medications for his disabled parents, will not be charged with driving under the influence of drugs, Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill announced on Wednesday.

Pixley’s legal troubles, however, are far from over.

Cahill said he still intends to charge Pixley, 42, with negligent operation of a motor vehicle “based upon the allegation that he crossed the center line of the roadway on several occasions and by several feet.”

While negligent operation is a misdemeanor, if convicted, Pixley still could be saddled with a criminal record and temporarily lose his driving privileges. As I wrote in a story published on Sunday, Pixley can ill afford to lose his license, even for 30 days or so.

For the past seven years, Pixley has worked as a dishwasher at Kendal, the senior living community in Hanover — 20 miles from the mobile home in Strafford that he shares with his parents. With no public transportation connecting the two towns, there’s a possibility that Pixley wouldn’t be able to keep his $12.50-an-hour job that comes with medical benefits.

His parents — neither of whom drive — depend on him to take them to medical appointments, shop for groceries and pick up prescriptions, which is how this saga began.

At about 10 a.m. on July 31, Pixley was headed in his 2007 Chrysler minivan to the Walmart pharmacy in West Lebanon before work. He didn’t know it, but the driver behind him on Route 14 was videotaping him.

The driver, James Bean, of Enfield, called 911 to report Pixley for “erratic driving.” Shortly thereafter, Hartford police officer Aleya Leombruno pulled Pixley over on VA Cutoff Road. She later reported seeing a blue minivan “cross over the center line.”

Pixley consented to a roadside Breathalzyer test that showed a reading of .000 percent. But Leombruno and another Hartford officer, acting Sgt. Sean Fernandes, who had arrived on the scene, were unsatisfied.

After putting Pixley through a series of field sobriety tests, they arrested him on suspicion of driving under the influence.

How could that be?

When asked, Pixley informed the officers that he takes several prescription medications, including Effexor, a common antidepressant. As a teenager, he was diagnosed with depression, and he’s been taking Effexor every morning for about 10 years under the care of a Dartmouth-Hitchcock physician.

After the traffic stop, Pixley was handcuffed and taken to the Hartford police station, where he was kept in a holding cell. (He already had been given a ticket for driving without insurance. He told me that he didn’t have the money for insurance, but acknowledged that wasn’t a legitimate excuse. He paid a fine and now has insurance.)

Hartford police then called in a Vermont State Police “drug recognition expert,” who took Pixley’s vital signs and put him through another round of sobriety tests. Next up was a trip in the back of a police cruiser to Mt. Ascutney Hospital in Windsor for a blood test before he was brought back to Hartford and released.

The five-hour ordeal ended with a missed day of work, a $220 charge to get his van from the impound lot and 2 months of waiting for the results of his blood test to come back from a private lab in Pennsylvania — a test that in October came back positive for only three substances: caffeine; Velafaxine, another name for the antidepressant Effexor; and O-Desmethylvenlafaxine, a byproduct of the antidepressant.

Apparently, as strange as its seems, that was enough for Hartford police. On Oct. 14, Pixley was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs.

Enter Cahill.

I’m not a lawyer, but I think it’s a good bet the county’s prosecutor figured out that proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Pixley was impaired would be a long shot. So on Wednesday, Cahill changed course, which is a prosecutor’s prerogative.

In a phone interview, Cahill told me that neither he nor other attorneys in his office had viewed the video taken by Bean, the driver who made the 911 call. But they had read the police report.

“Based on the written material, we believe probable cause exists to charge the crime of negligent operation based on the multiple instances of (Pixley) crossing the center line,” Cahill said.

The charge carries a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to a year in prison.

“I don’t see any reason to seek jail time in this case,” Cahill said, adding that while it’s ultimately up to the judge, he doesn’t think a hefty fine is called for, either.

That’s a relief.

But I’m still scratching my head that this case has ended up in the criminal justice system at all. Cahill could have opted not to prosecute and sent the case back to Hartford cops. They still could have issued Pixley a traffic ticket for crossing the centerline.

If not for Bean’s video, about all police and prosecutors would be working with is Leombruno’s report of seeing Pixley “cross over the center line.” That, and Pixley telling police that he was tired from working a lot and caring for his parents.

Before writing Sunday’s column, I talked with Norwich attorney George Ostler. He pointed out that Pixley might have just been having a bad day, physically.

“Being a lousy driver isn’t illegal,” Ostler said. “There are lots of those.”

Unfortunately, there are a lot of poor people such as Pixley who get caught up in the criminal justice system and can’t afford a decent lawyer to fight on their behalf.

This week, I’ve heard from several lawyers who offered to take on Pixley’s case for free. I’ve also received dozens of emails from readers who want to help pay Pixley’s legal bills or assist him and his parents in other ways. With winter approaching (or, judging by this week, it’s already here), the family could use money for heating fuel.

As one reader wrote, Pixley’s “family lives in our hometown, and are the nicest people, without a lot of money, but have never begged, borrowed or stolen from anyone. They would help you out in a minute.”

Along with a friend of Pixley’s setting up a GoFundMe account, a group in Strafford called Neighbors Helping Neighbors is collecting money on the family’s behalf. (Contributions can be sent to Neighbors Helping Neighbors, P.O. Box 85, Strafford, Vt., 05072. Strafford resident Randy Coffin is heading up the drive.)

“My family doesn’t want to be a charity case, but every little bit helps,” Pixley told me earlier this week.

He is scheduled to be arraigned on the negligent operation charge at 8 a.m. on Tuesday in Superior Court in White River Junction.

The good news: He won’t be going it alone.

Pixley has accepted Lebanon attorney Charlie Buttrey’s offer to represent him pro bono. Buttrey told me that he wants the money that’s being raised for Pixley’s defense to go toward the family’s other needs.

Now that Pixley has a good attorney in his corner, I’m hoping a plea deal can be worked out so he doesn’t lose his driving privileges or end up with a criminal record.

Either of those would be a real crime.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.