The prosecutor in the drunken driving case against the daughter of a prominent Lockport attorney agreed with the defense motion to dismiss the main charges against her, a court transcript shows. So did the judge, who apologized to her.
Niagara Falls City Court Judge Robert P. Merino, who was assigned the case after judges in two other cities recused themselves, agreed with both lawyers in the May 16 proceeding.
"Frankly, I couldn't find anything on the tape or the disc that indicated that she was intoxicated," Merino said of Rachel J. Winter, after reviewing some of the evidence.
Winter, 21, is the daughter of Ronald J. Winter, a former Niagara County prosecutor, whose intervention with police drew scrutiny.
The state Office of Court Administration is investigating the case, which began with a Nov. 24 traffic stop in Lockport when Winter was charged with driving while intoxicated by Niagara County Sheriff's Deputy Timothy Caughel. However, the DWI charge was not lodged that night, after intervention by Ronald Winter and Sheriff's Lt. Steve Broderick.
The Sheriff's Office reinstated the DWI charge March 5, after an internal investigation that resulted in "administrative action" against Broderick and his superior, Capt. Jill Herrington.
Merino threw out the DWI charge, as well as a reckless driving count, after defense attorney Theresa L. Prezioso argued for their dismissal.
Orleans County District Attorney Joseph V. Cardone, assigned to the case as a special prosecutor, agreed with Prezioso.
The case was hard on Rachel Winter, Prezioso said in the transcript.
"She was portrayed in the media as a privileged drunk, essentially," Prezioso told Merino. "And on the contrary, my client grew up in a modest house with hardworking parents. She went to Lockport High School, public high school. She worked through high school, college, she graduated college with highest honors, and secured a job at an ad agency in Brooklyn, N.Y., and she's also an accomplished ballerina. As we discussed already, she's never had any trouble with the law, ever."
Cardone, Merino and Prezioso all based their opinions about Rachel Winter on Caughel's body camera, which included the roadside sobriety tests she was given. Caughel thought she failed them all, but Cardone told Merino that he had drug recognition experts from other police agencies look at the tape, and they disagreed.
No breath test ever was administered, and Cardone told Merino he didn't think he could prove intoxication at trial.
"If anything, I think the video is exculpatory," Cardone said. He added that it might even constitute what lawyers call "Brady material" – evidence generated by police or prosecutors that actually helps the defense.
"I think in terms of the criminal justice system that, frankly, I think that's what you as a judge and me as a prosecutor and Ms. Prezioso is there to do, and that's to seek justice in this matter," Cardone said in the transcript. "And my frank opinion is that justice would be served by the disposition that we're talking about here today."
That outcome was a guilty plea to two traffic infractions, driving without headlights and failure to keep right. Merino did not fine Rachel Winter, but he imposed state-mandated surcharges totaling $146 – "reluctantly," according to the transcript.
"Miss Winter, I guess I can apologize for the system anyway," Merino said.
The defendant said nothing except "Guilty, Your Honor" when pleading to the traffic infractions.
"The last six months for my client have been very difficult, as you can imagine," Prezioso told the judge before sentencing. "Six months ago she was charged with reckless driving, which is a crime she didn't commit. Four months later she was charged with driving while intoxicated, which is a crime she didn't commit, as well."
Niagara County District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszek, Lockport City Judges William J. Watson and Thomas M. DiMillo, and North Tonawanda City Judge Shawn P. Nickerson all recused themselves from the case because of past relationships with Ronald Winter. He now serves as confidential law clerk to State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr.
Transcripts of the legal proceeding in Niagara Falls City Court: