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Superintendent’s trial continues

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Prosecution calls its last witness Thursday, testimony likely to continue this week

Editor’s note: The News was unable to attend the trial of Cannelton Schools Superintendent Alva Sibbitt beyond the first morning of jury selection Tuesday, about which the News reported Thursday (day corrected). The Times-Mail, based in Bedford, has a reporter covering it and Managing Editor Mike Lewis shared his reports with the News.

BY ROGER MOON
Times-Mail Staff Writer and Columnist

ENGLISH – Trooper Robert Lambert, the Indiana State Police officer who arrested former Paoli Community Schools Superintendent Alva Sibbitt Jr., was the only witness who testified Wednesday in a trial that stems from the incident.

Sibbitt’s arrest followed a December 2010 traffic stop.

Lambert first was questioned by Orange County Prosecutor Kelly Minton and recounted the stop, including his asking Sibbitt to take a portable breath test. Cross-examination by Sibbitt’s attorney, Scott Callahan, focused heavily on pieces of arrest-related information that Callahan said had been omitted from the original police report, including that tests had revealed Sibbitt had a blood alcohol content of 0.00.

Minton questioned Lambert about the circumstances that prompted him to request the portable breath test. Callahan’s cross-examination also explored Lambert’s rationale for requesting the test, but with an emphasis on whether it constituted “reasonable suspicion” that Sibbitt was impaired at the time he was stopped.

Sibbitt, 70, was charged with resisting law enforcement, a Class D felony; intimidation, a Class D felony; resisting law enforcement, a Class A misdemeanor; criminal recklessness, a Class A misdemeanor; and criminal mischief, a Class A misdemeanor. The trial was moved to Crawford County because of pre-trial publicity.

Lambert said he was parked on Paoli’s West Water Street near Elm Street shortly after 3 p.m. Dec. 9, 2010. He testified that he saw Sibbitt, driving a school-owned van, turn east onto West Water Street from Elm Street and noticed that Sibbitt wasn’t wearing a seat belt.

Lambert said he turned around and began following Sibbitt and turned on his flashing lights in an attempt to stop him. Lambert said Sibbitt ran through two stop signs and crossed Indiana 37 before pulling his vehicle into the parking lot of the Orange County Community Foundation building on the southeast corner of Indiana 37 and Water Street.

“He had parked in such a way it really didn’t leave me a lot of room to get out of the road. … I squeezed in as close (behind Sibbitt’s vehicle) as I could get to him,” Lambert said, adding that his vehicle was not parked evenly with Sibbitt’s, but was “offset.”

Lambert told Sibbitt why he had stopped him.

“I took note that he did have a stutter about him. … I noticed that he did have a large cup in his center console,” Lambert said. Sibbitt subsequently told Lambert the cup contained Diet Coke and offered him a taste.

Lambert said he returned to his car to begin generating the ticket for the seat belt violation and that he planned to give him four warnings – one each for running the two stop signs Lambert said Sibbitt had disregarded, one for not having his driver’s license in his possession, and one for having expired proof of insurance documentation.

Lambert took a (portable breath tester) from his car and told Sibbitt he wanted to administer it. Minton asked Lambert why he wanted Sibbitt to take the test.

“The first reason was his driving behavior. ... This isn’t normal,” Lambert said. “The stutter of his speech. That didn’t strike me as normal. What I thought may have been an open container. ... At one point he was verbally abusive to me. ... I thought something wasn’t right.”

Lambert said Sibbitt was angry.

“At one point, he went on to tell me, ‘You don’t know who I am. I’m Doc Sibbitt.’ … He went on to tell me, ‘I’ll have your job.’ … Immediately, he has escalated this way beyond where it needed to go.”

Sibbitt said he wasn’t going to submit to the (breath test).

Lambert said the traffic stop had not concluded, but that he was walking toward his car when he turned back to look toward Sibbitt. He said Sibbitt put his vehicle in reverse and rammed Lambert’s police car, causing it to shake. Sibbitt then pulled the van forward again. He said Sibbitt was uncooperative. Lambert then pulled him from his car, leaned him over the hood of the police vehicle, handcuffed him and placed him the police car.

Sibbitt was taken to the Orange County Jail, where the jail staff said policy mandated that, because he had been in an automobile accident, he must be taken to the hospital to be checked before he could be housed at the jail. Lambert drove Sibbitt to the hospital, where it was determined he had not been injured and he was administered a test that showed he had not been drinking alcohol.

Lambert responded in cross-examination that he had told Sibbitt he would cite him if he didn’t take the (breath test).

“You don’t have any right to do that,” Callahan said. “No, I don’t,” Lambert responded.

Callahan, in addition to questioning why Lambert had not referenced the breath test results in his initial report, also asserted the report did not reflect Sibbitt’s asking Lambert multiple times to take him to the jail for a breath test to be administered there; Sibbitt told Lambert he believed he was within his rights in making the request.

Callahan also asked the officer about the lack of reference in the report to damage having been done to the police car when it was hit.

The report, Callahan said, listed four charges the state could consider filing against Sibbitt after the incident.

“The one not suggested to the prosecutor is the one involving damage to the vehicle,” Callahan said.

But it became a fifth charge, with the count maintaining the car had sustained damage estimated between $250 and $2,500.

He told jurors, “You’re going to hear a radio transcript of Lambert when he radios in that there’s no damage to his car.” He also said the state police accident report also makes no reference to the car being damaged.

“But there is a damage charge in this case. You have to ask, ‘What’s going on?’” Callahan said.

Concerning the criminal recklessness charge, Callahan said, “There’s no criminal recklessness. … This was an accident. This was a backing accident.”

Thursday testimony

Three law-enforcement officers joined the arresting officer in testifying Thursday at the trial …

A Crawford County jury (was) hearing the case (last) week and (were to) determine whether the former Paoli Community Schools superintendent is guilty of five charges that stem from a Dec. 9, 2010, traffic stop.

As the second day of testimony opened, Indiana State Police Trooper Robert Lambert returned to the witness stand to answer questions in cross-examination by Sibbitt’s attorney, Scott Callahan. Lambert had stopped Sibbitt for a seat belt violation and had given him a ticket for the offense. Callahan’s questioning of the officer explored Lambert’s rationale for requesting that Sibbitt take a portable breath test and for then telling him he would cite him for refusal if he didn’t comply with the request.

Callahan asked Lambert whether he had made a mistake in telling Sibbitt he could cite him for refusal to take the (portable breath test). “That was a mistake,” Lambert responded.

Orange County Prosecutor Kelly Minton, in his opportunity for redirect questioning of Lambert, said that under Indiana Code, there are only limited occasions when an officer can cite a driver for failure to take a (breath test). “This was not one of them?” Minton asked. Lambert responded that it hadn’t been and that he and his superior, Sgt. Greg Ashby, had contacted the Indiana State Police Legal Section for an answer. “They told me I was incorrect,” Lambert said.
Callahan also suggested to Lambert that the law reads that officers should offer other field-sobriety tests, including the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, before offering a (portable breath test). In Minton’s redirect questioning, he asked Lambert about other field tests, with Lambert responding that a one-leg stand or drivers walking in a line were among options, but that both required drivers to be outside the vehicle.

Minton referenced Lambert’s earlier testimony wherein he had said a (portable breath test) was “a place to start.”

“I was just trying to use the least intrusive means to determine whether there was impairment or not,” Lambert said.

Ashby, the assistant district commander at the Indiana State Police Jasper Post, also testified as a witness for the state, telling jurors he had arrived at the scene of the traffic stop after learning a police car had been hit. Callahan asked him whether his primary duty had been to generate a crash report. Ashby said he had gone “to check the state police car. That’s why I responded to the scene.”

Ashby testified the bumper of the police car had some “spiderwebbing” and some “stress lines.”

On Tuesday, Callahan referenced the count against Sibbitt that maintains the police car had sustained damage estimated between $250 and $2,500. On Wednesday, Callahan questioned Ashby about the absence of any indication on the police report that the car had sustained damage. Ashby said that, in Indiana, if damage is less than $1,000 it does not have to be reflected on the crash report. Minton pursued the subject in his redirect questioning, and Ashby responded, “It was very minor damage. It wasn’t structural damage. … I believed it to be less than $1,000.” He said he did not want to file a claim against Paoli Community Schools for the damage.

“I make recommendations as to whether we fix our cars or not,” Ashby said.

Callahan also questioned Ashby about why the police report hadn’t included the information that when Sibbitt later had submitted to a (portable breath test) it had come back negative. Pointing to distinctions between the PBT as a field test and a certified test that also can be performed, Ashby said, “I personally do not put PBTs in case reports because results are not admissible in court. I believe a certified test is the one you would want in a report.”

Minton, in questioning Lambert earlier in the day, had established that, although Lambert’s initial report did not mention any lab test results, the report had included an attachment that reflected a hospital lab test revealing Sibbitt had tested negative for alcohol.

Trooper Shane Staggs of the ISP Jasper Post, and Paoli Police Department Officer Scott Dillman also testified Tuesday as witnesses for the state.

Two witnesses also were called for the defense. Teresa Houston said she had driven past the scene of the traffic stop and had seen an older man “laying on a car.” She added, “An officer was taking his feet and kicking his legs apart.”

Callahan asked James Babcock, former Paoli High School principal, if Sibbitt often stuttered.

“Dr. Sibbitt has a characteristic,” Babcock said. “He would get to talking and he would stammer some. I’ve heard it over and over again.”

Lambert had said that Sibbitt’s stuttering during the traffic stop was one of the factors leading him to request that Sibbitt take the PBT.

Callahan also asked Babcock to describe Sibbitt as a superintendent.

“He was very passionate about his job,” Babcock said.

Moon told the News Friday morning the jury was not to report until 10 a.m., and the prosecution had called all of its witnesses by Thursday but hadn’t yet rested its case. Ten to 12 people were listed as defense witnesses, including Houston and Babcock, who had been called “out of sequence,” the reporter said. He didn’t expect the trial to be finished by Friday.

The News will provide more information as it becomes available.