By Alan J. Keays, VTDigger
A man charged in a single-vehicle crash that killed his girlfriend has reached a plea agreement that could let him avoid serving any time behind bars.
The plea deal heads off a legal battle that had been brewing over the admissibility of a blood-test for alcohol impairment in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a North Dakota drunken driving case.
John Fairbanks III, 24, of Castleton, pleaded no contest Tuesday, April 4, in Rutland Superior criminal court to a felony charge of gross negligent operation of a motor vehicle with death resulting and a misdemeanor offense of drunken driving.
The charges stem from a crash in Castleton on November 2014 that killed 23-year-old Stephanie Briggs, a passenger in Fairbanks’ car.
A felony charge of drunken driving with death resulting was dismissed as part of the plea agreement.
A sentencing hearing is set for May 30.
The plea deal for Fairbanks calls for his sentence on the felony charge of gross negligent operation of a motor vehicle with death resulting to be deferred for five years, and he would be placed on probation.
If he abides by the terms of his probation for those five years, the charge would be cleared from his record. If he violates his probation conditions he faces the possibility of receiving the maximum penalty for the offense of 15 years in jail.
The conditions of his probation include taking part in drug or alcohol treatment if a screening determines it is necessary. He also cannot go into a bar, tavern or any other establishment whose primary business is serving alcoholic beverages.
In addition, he must complete 50 hours of community service.
On the misdemeanor DUI charge, the proposed plea deal calls for a six-month to one-year sentence, which he can serve on home confinement if approved by the state Department of Corrections.
Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy said after the hearing she could not comment on the case, which remains pending until after the sentencing hearing.
Judge Cortland Corsones at the change of plea hearing Tuesday walked Fairbanks through the terms of the agreement before taking the no contest pleas.
“You have the right to proceed to a trial if that is what you want,” the judge said.
“I do understand that,” Fairbanks replied, and then pleaded no contest to the charges.
The plea deal comes amid a legal challenge over the admissibility of a blood test used to determine Fairbanks’ blood-alcohol level on the night of crash.
For Fairbanks, according to court records, his test found he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.097 percent, which is higher than the 0.08 percent legal limit for driving in Vermont.
Attorney Daniel Stevens, representing Fairbanks, filed a motion seeking to the suppress the blood test results and asked that the charges stemming from it be dismissed.
He contended in his filing that a U.S. Supreme Court case decided less than a year ago concerning the procedure police use to obtain blood test results amounted to an unconstitutional search.
The high court in that case, Birchfield v. North Dakota, ruled that the Fourth Amendment allows for warrantless breath tests for arrests on drunken driving charges. However, according to the ruling, it prohibits warrantless blood tests.
The difference between the blood and breath test, according the decision, is that a breath test is not considered as invasive a procedure as a blood test, in which skin is pierced and blood is taken from a person.
Stevens wrote in his motion, “In this case, the arresting officer obtained a sample of John’s blood without a warrant, a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and the test results should be excluded from trial.”
Prosecutors disagreed, arguing, in part, that a blood test was the only option at the time.
“Nearly two and quarter hours after the crash the defendant was still in the hospital,” the response from prosecutors states. “Hours would pass before he was discharged.
For those reasons, a breath test was not reasonably available.”
The plea deal reached Tuesday came before Judge Corsones could rule on the matter, either allowing the blood test to be admitted as evidence at trial, or suppressing it and not permitting it to used.
The crash leading to the charges took place Nov. 29, 2014, around 7:40 p.m. on Route 30 in Castleton. Police said Fairbanks was at the wheel of a 1999 Volkswagen Passat that drove into the oncoming lane before going airborne, striking a utility pole.
Briggs was declared dead at the scene, police said. Fairbanks, who was walking around yelling and throwing debris when police arrived, told them that Briggs had been driving, court records stated.
However, a police affidavit filed in the case stated that a day later, Briggs’ mother, Susan Lynde, reported that Fairbanks had called her, telling her that he had been driving in the crash that killed Briggs.
“I’m so sorry,” he told Lynde, according to court records.