The credibility of those chosen to enforce the law is critical. Meanwhile, the affliction of alcohol abuse affects people from all walks of life.
So when Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson crashed his county-owned vehicle while under the influence of alcohol in early December and admitted that he had a drinking problem he needed to address, the Star Tribune Editorial Board weighed the situation with considerable attention and mixed opinions. The view that prevailed held that Hutchinson should atone for his mistake, undergo appropriate treatment and return to work.
It's a forbearance that has been afforded to other elected officials who have committed drunken-driving offenses. It's one granted to many (though not all) citizens guilty of a first offense. It's offered to perpetrators by a society that has a sense of humility and a hope for their redemption, even in the face of a deadly scourge.
At the same time, we wrote Dec. 10, both the legal system and Hutchinson himself were obliged to provide a special level of transparency in this case. It is the lack thereof in the weeks hence — and growing concern that there may be other shoes to drop — that now lead us to call for Hutchinson's resignation.
One revelation in particular shreds the sheriff's tattered trustworthiness beyond repair. According to a recently unsealed State Patrol search warrant, Hutchinson told a Douglas County sheriff's deputy several times at the scene of the rollover — which took place near Alexandria, where Hutchinson had been attending a law enforcement conference — that someone else had been driving the vehicle. That was a lie. He was alone.
Yes, he was drunk at the time — with a blood alcohol content of 0.13, according to the results of a urine sample he provided later at a hospital — and, yes, drunk people say the dumbest things. Hutchinson's attorney, Fred Bruno, says that the sheriff "rang his bell" in the crash and that Hutchinson's words at the scene were "meaningless" as a result. But it is another apparent example of this particular law enforcer flouting the law.
Additionally, according to the warrant, a bottle of bourbon "was observed inside the passenger compartment." Bruno disputes the allegation, and Hutchinson was not prosecuted for it, but Minnesota law prohibits open containers of alcohol in vehicles. Bruno did Hutchinson no favors in terms of public perception when he complained that state troopers are "unforgiving" regarding DWIs and "would charge Mother Teresa." The sheriff should instruct his attorney to get on board with the message of contrition.
Hutchinson gave interviews to several media outlets, including the Star Tribune, in late December, speaking in tones of abashment. But he did not offer any of this additional information, even though he had already reached a plea agreement. As a public official, Hutchinson should have anticipated ongoing scrutiny of his case. He should have just come out with any information the public deserves to know. Which is all of it.
Other aspects of his case are murkier but still concerning. They include a booking process — in Ramsey County, not Douglas, nearly two weeks after the crash — that could leave the impression of having been tailored for Hutchinson's convenience, and a pestering sort of law enforcement attention to an independent journalist who photographed Hutchinson's crumpled vehicle at an impound lot in Medina.
Importantly, Hutchinson is losing the confidence of other Hennepin County leaders, with calls for his resignation mounting among County Board members on Thursday. Though the board cannot fire an elected official such as Hutchinson, it oversees the sheriff's roughly $120 million budget.
Considering the recent upheaval in Twin Cities law enforcement leadership and the crime patterns worrying residents throughout the metro area, we had hoped it would help with stability if Hutchinson were to stay on the job. Instead, it's no longer clear that the sheriff can be duly focused on the county's needs, or if he is being fully honest with himself about his own.