BROOKSVILLE — A top official at the Hernando County Sheriff's Office was arrested Monday on a charge of driving drunk — 10 days after witnesses say they saw her crash her truck and act intoxicated at the crash scene.
Emily Vernon, the agency's finance director, faces a misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence causing property damage. She could receive up to a year in county jail.
She was released on a standard $500 bail and will return to work for the time being.
Just before midnight on July 12, witnesses said Vernon swerved across Lake Lindsey Road and hit a road sign before skidding to a stop near the intersection with Daly Road near Istachatta. Several drivers followed Vernon and called 911 to report a reckless driver who they said had forced several vehicles off the road before hitting the sign.
All the evidence at the scene indicated Vernon, 39, was inebriated — including her erratic behavior, witness statements and alcohol found inside her truck — but deputies determined they could not make an arrest because no witnesses saw her behind the wheel.
The State Attorney's Office decided to press charges after four eyewitnesses came forward July 15 saying they saw her driving.
The new witnesses, who were all riding the same vehicle, initially stopped at the scene but left before deputies arrived.
A deputy said Vernon had the faint odor of alcohol on her breath and body and seemed "overly relaxed." Investigators found an empty wine carafe in the passenger seat of the 2004 Chevy truck and a plastic bottle with a half-inch of a pinkish liquid that smelled like alcohol, according to the report.
Assistant State Attorney Rob Lewis said even without the new witnesses, deputies could have made an arrest that night.
"According to the case law, you can use circumstantial evidence to put someone behind the wheel," Lewis said.
"Hindsight being 20/20, could a valid arrest be made? Yes. But I'm not going to second-guess a roadside cop."
Lewis also said he advises deputies to "err on the side of caution," telling them a bad arrest negates the case.
Still, by not initiating an investigation at the scene, prosecutors will have a tough time proving the case without any sobriety tests or breath analysis.
In his first comments about the arrest, Sheriff Richard Nugent acknowledged in an interview Monday that an immediate arrest was possible but said he supports the decision deputies and supervisors made on the scene.
"The deputy on the scene, if you know her, she would arrest her own grandmother if she knew she had a case," Nugent said. "The problem is you have to place the driver in control of the vehicle.
"Could they have made an arrest? Of course," he continued. "Would the charge have been dropped? Of course, it would be."
As for the perception that Vernon was treated differently because she is an agency employee and former county employee, Nugent rejected that notion.
"People who'd say they would have been arrested — I know that's not true, and you're not going to change their mind," he said.
The sheriff told about Vernon's continued bouts with cancer.
She beat it six years ago, but it recently returned and she endured another round of intensive chemotherapy, he said, providing few details.
"Folks make bad mistakes," he said, "but obviously there's something going on, too."
John Frank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6114.