Thursday, September 24, 2009

Police say Officer followed protocol in DUI arrest, release before crash

SEATAC, Wash. -- Police in Des Moines are defending their handling of the events that preceded the fiery car crash that killed three people on Wednesday morning.

Ryan and Erika Savage

Friends say 24-year-old Erika Savage, her brother Ryan Savage, 30, and her friend Matt Saunders, 31, died after their SUV hit two trees and a power pole before crashing into a building near the intersection of Eighth and 192nd.

And records indicate just hours before the crash, Erika Savage, 24, had been arrested under suspicion of driving under the influence.

A Des Moines police officer had arrested Erika Savage three hours earlier while she was driving in the vehicle that was involved in the crash, a Lincoln Navigator registered to her name.

"He noticed at the scene that she was extremely impaired," said Des Moines police spokesman Bob Collins.

Video from the patrol car shows Erika Savage inebriated to the point of struggling to stand up. But police say she refused to take a breathalyzer test or give a blood sample to test her alcohol level -- a driver's right in the state of Washington.

Collins says the department's policy is to hold a DUI suspect only if that person is involved in an accident or has an outstanding warrant. Neither exception applied to Erika Savage.

"And at that point in time, his investigation was over. He went ahead and requested her to be transported for medical care because of her extreme impairment," he said.

An ambulance took Erika Savage to Highline Hospital, and the officer gave the car keys to her friend, Matt Saunders.

"He said he had a driver's license. The officer asked him if he had been drinking. He said, "No." And (the officer) noticed no observation or odor of intoxicant, any slurred speech. And the vehicle was released to that occupant," Collins said.

Three hours after the arrest, Saunders and Ryan Savage picked up Erika Savage the hospital, where doctors had no obligation to keep her.

The King County Medical Examiner's Office said that neither Erika nor Ryan Savage was driving the SUV when it crashed. Consequently, sheriff's investigators said it appears Saunders was behind the wheel at the time.

"It's an extreme tragedy. But as far as our involvement in the case, it ended at 1:09 (a.m.) when she was no longer in our custody," said Collins.

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