Answers sought in Atkins driving incident

Ocean City, Md., officials set meetings this week
By PATRICK GAVIN, The (Salisbury, Md.) Daily Times

Posted Sunday, January 7, 2007 at 6:02 am

Rep. John Atkins
OCEAN CITY, Md. -- Ocean City Police Chief Bernadette DiPino will meet Thursday with Mothers Against Drunk Driving victim advocate David Ezley to discuss the incident Oct. 29 in which police stopped Delaware state Rep. John Atkins, R-Millsboro, on suspicion of erratic, intoxicated driving but decided against making an arrest.

Similarly, Police Commission Chairman Lloyd Martin on Friday called a special commission meeting for Tuesday when commission members can learn the facts and discuss possible repercussions.

Ezley refused to comment on the incident until after the meeting, when DiPino will presumably lay out what transpired that night.

"Law enforcement is MADD's No. 1 ally," Ezley said. "I don't know what to say until I sit down and have the meeting."

Martin, Commission member Jay Hancock and Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan also chose to reserve comment until the discovery phase of the proceedings runs its course.

"We've got a highly (decorated) officer who did something for a reason," Martin said. "I want to find out what that reason is."

The meeting with MADD is a step in the right direction for the Ocean City Police Department, Hancock said.

"I think the police department owes the public some answers," he said. "It appears on the surface a bad decision was made. ... What we don't know is are other people given similar breaks that do not get publicized?"

The MADD representative admitted he did not know what to expect in his meeting with DiPino, but whether new information is disclosed or an outright apology is offered, he said he looks forward to a bit of closure on the matter.

"She initiated the meeting," Ezley said. "I'm really pleased that everything will be on the table. We just want this resolved because we depend on them getting drunk drivers off the highway."

Veteran Pfc. Douglas A. Smith, who was supervising trainee Natalie R. Smolko when the pair pulled over Atkins, has been praised by MADD in the past for his strong record against drunken drivers.

DiPino was out of town this week and unavailable to comment.

The controversy surrounding the Oct. 29 incident stems from what some in the community have decried as preferential treatment for Atkins.

Police stopped Atkins on Coastal Highway near 123rd Street. He was veering across lanes and driving 12 miles over the speed limit, according to police reports.

Atkins admitted to one officer he had "had a few beers" and blew a .14 when administered a preliminary breath test, well over Maryland's .08 legal limit. His wife, Heather, tested .16, police said.

Atkins later told the media he called a friend to pick up he and his wife. He initially told police he could arrange for a Delaware State Trooper to drive them home if necessary, according to Smolko's report.

OCPD spokesman Barry Neeb defended the officers, saying that even when a person blows a .14 into a Breathalyzer, it is up to the officer's discretion whether or not the situation warrants an arrest.

Atkins told members of the media his legislative position played no part in helping him avoid a DUI arrest.

Later that same night, at the Atkins' home in Millsboro, police responded to a domestic disturbance and arrested and charged Atkins when he allegedly grabbed his wife's arm during an argument.

He later pleaded guilty to the domestic violence charge Dec. 4 and is on probation for up to a year and undergoing counseling.

The News Journal contributed to this report.

Contact Patrick Gavin at (410) 213-9442 or pgavin@dmg.gannett.com