HELENA — A Billings police officer on trial in Helena for driving with an elevated alcohol level attacked the breath-testing technology used by the state, and emerged without a conviction on the charge after her trial ended Friday with a hung jury.
The four-man, two-woman jury convicted Samantha Puckett of speeding but failed to reach agreement on the DUI per se charge. Municipal Judge Bob Wood declared a mistrial and Deputy City Attorney Thomas Jodoin said it was too early to decide whether the city would retry the case.
Puckett’s attorney, Bradley Finn, said Puckett has been working at her job as a police officer since a brief period of administrative leave after her arrest in the early hours of Dec. 10.
Billings Police officials did not return calls inquiring about Puckett’s employment status, and a person at the city’s Human Resources Department said that department would not comment.
Helena police say they measured Samantha Puckett’s breath-alcohol content above .10 percent that night, exceeding the legal limit for driving of .08 percent.
But Paul Miranda, an expert witness for Puckett, testified that the analysis could be flawed.
Miranda, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Montana and works as a senior metallurgist for Idaho-based Thompson Creek Mining Co., has had some training related to breath-testing and has previously testified as an expert witness about eight or 10 times, he said.
He argued that the test results could vary due to elevation, the body temperature of the person blowing, and other factors. Based on those variables, and after viewing police video of Puckett performing well in two of the three field sobriety tests, Miranda said he believed Puckett was below the legal maximum.
Jodoin questioned whether the chemist had any training in analysis of field sobriety tests. Miranda said he hadn’t, but he’s previously had a few beers with buddies and knows when they’re intoxicated. As an example, he said his sister-in-law, once at a bachelorette party, fell off a stage while singing after drinking all night, and hit her head. “I’m pretty sure she’s above a .08,” he said.
The incident began when Helena Police Department Cpl. Jason Zander, on patrol by the intersection of North Montana Avenue and Cedar Street, saw and heard Puckett’s SUV speeding southbound, according to his testimony Thursday. By driving his patrol car at about the same speed as the SUV, Zander estimated the car was driving about 45 mph in a 30 mph speed zone, and he pulled it over.
Zander, a nine-year Helena Police veteran who trains other officers on conducting field sobriety testing, testified that he smelled alcohol in the car. Puckett performed well on two of the field sobriety tests and initially said she had two beers that evening. Later, she said she had consumed four beers in three different bars, and only eaten beef jerky and a protein bar that evening.
During the required 20-minute period between the traffic stop and the breath analysis (to ensure that any alcohol left in the mouth is able to dissipate), Zander and Puckett chatted about police officers they both knew and other police-related matters including the funeral a few days earlier of David DeLaittre, the Montana Highway Patrolman who was killed during a traffic stop.
“It’s a bad situation for me, too,” Zander said on the video just before arresting Puckett. “This is the last thing I want to do.”
After viewing the results of a second breath test at the detention center, she was asked on video whether she was under the influence of alcohol.
“Obviously, yes,” she said.