Just drinking or drunk? Pasco DUI manslaughter trial begins

Elias Soto, charged with DUI manslaughter, sits Tuesday before Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa. Soto crashed into a roadwork site in 2006, hitting Michael Gunter, who died later from his injuries.

KERI WIGINTON | Times

Elias Soto, charged with DUI manslaughter, sits Tuesday before Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa. Soto crashed into a roadwork site in 2006, hitting Michael Gunter, who died later from his injuries.

DADE CITY — Elias Soto crashed into a road maintenance work site in 2006, injuring a worker who would later die of his injuries.

Witnesses at Soto's DUI manslaughter trial on Tuesday said Soto was laughing when he got out of the car and announced he had to urinate. The Florida Highway Patrol trooper said Soto smelled of alcohol and failed field sobriety tests.

But was he drunk?

Breathalyzer tests taken at the Land O'Lakes jail showed Soto's blood alcohol level was 0.051 and 0.055, well below the threshold at which Florida law presumes a driver is impaired.

During the opening arguments of the trial Tuesday, Soto's attorney argued the FHP failed to collect enough evidence to prove Soto was intoxicated at the time of the crash.

"I want you to look for what's missing," defense attorney Michael Brannigan said.

"The proper evidence was never collected or preserved."

Specifically: FHP never took a blood sample from Soto to measure the alcohol in his system.

But the prosecution said there was plenty of evidence that proved Soto's impairment, including the failed field sobriety test and testimony that he had alcohol on his breath and behaved oddly.

"The mistakes by the Highway Patrol do not negate the actions Mr. Soto took that night," said attorney Justin Petredis.

In the early hours of Oct. 19, 2006, according to authorities, Soto was driving a white BMW east on State Road 54. At Meadow Pointe Boulevard, he crashed into a work site where workers were installing traffic signal sensors in the road.

Michael Gunter, 18, of Lakeland was loading an industrial saw onto a trailer when he was struck and thrown into the median. Gunter had two broken legs and internal bleeding at the crash scene and died a few months later, in spring 2007.

The night of the accident, the work site was marked by traffic cones, lights and signs. The FHP did not observe skid marks, and witnesses said they did not hear a squeal that would indicate Soto applied the BMW's brakes before the crash.

Soto announced after the crash he had to urinate, witnesses said. He later defecated himself, which he told the FHP was caused by medicine he was on for his blood pressure.

Several hours after the accident, the FHP administered a Breathalyzer at the Land O'Lakes jail. The results showed Soto well below the legal limit of 0.08.

But the test may not have reflected his blood alcohol level at the time of the accident, said Ron Bell, a private forensic toxicologist.

"His blood alcohol level would have been declining by the time he was tested," Bell told jurors.

Bell used a statistical formula that, based on the Breathalyzer result, the time of crash and other factors, put Soto's blood alcohol level in the range of 0.11 and 0.14 when he struck Gunter.

Anthony Palese, a FHP trooper who responded to the accident, said Soto smelled of alcohol, his speech was slurred and he appeared unsteady on his feet.

Soto denied having anything to drink, and then said he had candy with rum in it, Palese said.

Palese said he administered a field sobriety test, which Soto performed poorly. He did not request a blood sample because Soto agreed to take the Breathalyzer at the jail.

"The impairment I observed, I thought the breath result would have been higher," Palese said. "I was quite surprised."

Dan Richardson, a toxicologist with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime lab, testified that blood and breath were equally good specimens when it came to testing for alcohol.

Soto faces charges of DUI manslaughter, manslaughter by culpable negligence and two counts of DUI. The two manslaughter charges are second-degree felonies, each punishable by 15 years in prison.

The trial is expected to end this afternoon.

Andi Gunter, the victim's mother, spoke briefly with the Times. Asked what she thought of Soto's defense, she said: "That's nonsense."

Just drinking or drunk? Pasco DUI manslaughter trial begins 12/08/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 8, 2009 8:58pm]

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