Did political connections help a young Niagara county woman avoid a D.W.I. charge? It's a question some lawmakers in Niagara county want answered. Instead being sentenced to driving school or having her license suspended, Sara Donovan, 23, who is the daughter of North Tonawanda Councilwoman Nancy Donovan, saw her Driving While Intoxicated charge reduced to a parking ticket and a speeding ticket.
Payne Avenue residents near Thompson Street in North Tonawanda say the violent-sounding crash woke up the neighborhood around 2:00 a.m. on July 11th. "Basically from the force of her hitting the truck she knocked the truck into and over the curb," describes Jason Shaw who lives on Payne Avenue. Police say Sara Donovan's blood alcohol content was .13, nearly double the legal limit, when she smashed into two parked vehicles after a night out at Crazy's Jake's bar on Webster Street.
It's what happened days later though that has some people more upset. Donovan took a plea deal that reduced the D.W.I. charge to a speeding ticket and a parking ticket.
"This is not the kind of precedent we want to set in Niagara county," says Dennis Virtuoso, a democrat and Minority Leader for the Niagara County Legislature. Some legal experts say this type of plea deal is unusual and so Virtuoso wants an explanation or an investigation.
"I feel that there was political interference involved here and if there was we'd like to make sure this doesn't happen again," says Virtuoso.
Niagara County District Attorney Michael Violante defended himself in a statement on Wednesday. The statement reads:
"Much has been said and written of my decision in the case involving Sara Donovan. Cases involving DWI are always taken very seriously by this office, especially those involving a property damage crash. And while I am required to administer justice evenly, I must review all of the relevant facts surrounding an arrest and treat each case individually and each person as an individual."
"Plea offers such as the one involved in this case have occurred in the past and may very well occur in the future where a disposition outside the usual and common practices serve the interest of justice. The practice of plea bargaining at all court levels occurs on a daily basis and while some of those plea bargains may seem unusual to some citizens of Niagara County, I can assure you that the safety and well-being of all of the citizens of Niagara County is my utmost concern."
"Unfortunately, in the case of Sara Donovan, the fact that this young woman is the daughter of a public official is drawing more attention than it would if this case involved the average citizen."
"I will not make it a practice to explain or justify my decisions to the press in regards to plea bargain offers made by this office, however, I do not want the negative publicity of one case to overshadow the hard work and dedication of this office and all of the positive work done in the hundreds of cases handled on a daily basis."
Eyewitness News also noticed a handwritten note in court documents regarding Donovan's plea deal. Under the section regarding the reasons the plea deal was offered someone wrote "no priors", "prop damage crash/ins covers", ".13 BAC" and "VIP?". Eyewitness News called the Deputy District Attorney who signed that document to find out what the VIP notation means, but as of Wednesday evening our calls were not returned.