Sunday, February 13, 2011

Astoria's culture of alcoholism

Editor's Notebook:
Astoria's culture of alcoholism nurtures our Municipal Court
by Steve Forrester
Daily Astorian
published Friday, February 11, 2011

‘She is adamantly opposed to any assistance'

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is Nicole Pedersen, and I am the daughter of Janell Voeller. I'm contacting you in reference to her pending DUII cases.

It has come to my attention that Mr. Marquis is attempting to get her Municipal case tried in a court of record, and that her cases in particular may be of significant interest to the DA's office. I'm writing to inform you of the family's support.

My mother does this repeatedly, and has been an alcoholic for well over a decade. There is nothing we as a family have been able to do to curtail her drinking or get her in to a rehab facility. There was an intervention a few years back to no avail.

In short, I'm offering any assistance you deem appropriate. If there's any information I can provide you, I would be happy to do so. If/when it comes time for sentencing I would be pleased to address the judge and explain my concern for repeat offenses. Without treatment, she will certainly continue to offend, and the only way to get her into a rehabilitation program is by a court order. She is adamantly opposed to any assistance.

Further, I've heard that the second case, the County offense, may either fail or be thrown out due to some sort of sampling mistake. I don't know if it helps, but there is a credible witness to the exceptionally erratic driving on Highway 30 that night. An ambulance from Pacific County was travelling eastbound on Highway 30 while he witnessed the vehicle which was travelling westbound not only in the eastbound lane, but in the furthest eastbound lane (this occurred in the dual lane portion of the highway west of Koppisch road). The ambulance driver had to move his vehicle south of the fog line in order to avoid hitting it. He then met an officer on the road who did pull the vehicle over. If need be, I can provide you with the EMT's name. Again, I don't know if it's of value, but I would like to see her be held responsible for her actions, and prevent her from injuring anyone.
Thank you for your assistance,
Nicole Pedersen

The extraordinary letter on this page, written by Nicole Pedersen, stems from this young woman's attempt to cope with an alcoholic mother who was Janell Voeller.

Pedersen sent this letter electronically to the Clatsop County District Attorney's general mailbox on Aug. 12, 2010. She authorized its publication.

Voeller's case was a poster child for what's wrong with the Astoria Municipal Court. The Voeller case stands next to those of Stephen Moore, Sara Leloff and David Lee Gonzalez. In all of those cases, Astoria's court was more inclined to dismiss defendants than it was determined to prosecute them vigorously - and in the case of Moore - to the letter of the law.

The Voeller case is especially significant, for two reasons. It is recent and it depicts a new city DUII prosecutor who has quickly adopted the culture of enabling that shows itself in the Municipal Court cases of Moore et al.

In November 2009, Voeller crashed her car. The arresting officer believed she was on some form of medication. Because the city rarely prosecuted DUII drug cases, the Astoria officer charged Voeller with the crime of reckless driving. She was fined $109, given no probation, treatment or follow up.

In July 2010, the Astoria Police Department arrested Voeller. She blew .10 on the breathalyzer. (the legal threshold for DUII is .08) She was released from jail, drove away and was arrested again for DUII by the Sheriff's Office at 12:30 a.m.

Seeing two DUII arrests on the same day for the same defendant, District Attorney Josh Marquis sought to join the cases. In response, City Prosecutor Mary Ann Murk responded with a refusal to cooperate. When Marquis subsequently wrote a longer request, Murk offered no response, but subsequently told the Astoria City Council Oct. 4 that, "I don't work for the D.A."

Hmmm. Does Murk not work for the rest of us - a citizenry that would like effective prosecution of DUII cases?

On Sept. 17, Voeller died in her living room as a result of a drug overdose and alcohol.

Alcoholism and drunken driving are linked in the concept of diversion, which is offered by the courts to first-time DUII offenders. It is an opportunity to recognize a problem and seek treatment. But when diversion became common throughout the nation, and when Mothers Against Drunk Driving caused states to stiffen their penalties for drunken driving, a defense lawyer in Florida developed a new set of tactics for other defense lawyers. In most American towns, there is a lawyer who specializes in DUII defense, and he works from that playbook.

In essence, the post-MADD defense against drunken driving involves having evidence suppressed and getting cases dismissed. Astoria's Municipal Court is essential to this strategy, for two reasons. It is a relative pushover for a skilled DUII defense lawyer, and it is not a court of record.

If a community wants a fair contest in the DUII cases that enter its courts, there must be prosecutors who can play at the same professional level as the defense specialist. You don't send a part-time batter to the plate against a Major League pitcher, but that effectively is what we do in Astoria Municipal Court. That inequity is further confused by having a judge who is also a criminal defense lawyer.

By assenting to this unfair fight, the Astoria City Council is enabling drunken driving. That may be seen in the Moore, Leloff and Gonzalez cases, and also in the Voeller case. To learn more about these cases see

An alcoholism treatment specialist would say that response to treatment or the shock of a DUII conviction is neither predictable nor consistent. In other words, some alcoholics take a while to get it. Some never get it. It was Astoria Mayor Willis Van Dusen's third DUII adjudication that convinced him to seek help at the Betty Ford Clinic. David Lee Gonzales, on the other hand, had 10 DUIIs under his belt when this newspaper discovered his three dismissals in Astoria Municipal Court.

Van Dusen is central to the Municipal Court discussion, because he is its most dogged defender. His journey to sobriety is at odds with his defense of this court which politely may be called flawed and more correctly called corrupt.

Astoria has a culture of alcoholism. That is where this history of lax prosecution came from. Isn't it time to end this deadly pathology of official enabling?

- S.A.F.

click here for the editorial at the Daily Astorian website


  1. So, Josh, since you reprinted this in your website, what does Steve want? Does he want you to be able to take all DUII cases? But, if the Astoria Municipal Court is as corrupt as you and he say,does he want you to take over that court system? And, with respect to a state law on the issue, is a new law necessary and, if so, should municipalities in additon to Astoria have to suffer with the results or your new law? I would really like you to state the totality of your actions and your anticipated results here.

  2. I don't know what the editor of the newspaper wants.
    This bill would not change the way any othet Muni Court in Clatsop County (and there are four others) or anywhere else other than allow the DA - as current law appears ro already authorize - to step in and take over a DUII case if it's not being handled properly in Muni Court.
    I expect the results will be savings of about $10,000 a year to Astoria, no additional cost to the county, and equal treatment for someone charged with DUII in Knappa or Astoria.
    I have been very clear in my meetings with City officials for almost a YEAR now. They think everything is just great and no change is needed. I strongly disagree, and that is why the Governor's Advisory Committee on DUII has endorsed this bill, which frankly is little more than housekeeping. Laws can be complicated and vague and HB 3025 simply seeks to clarify existing ORS 8.660

  3. Sorry, I don't understand. If this proposed law is just housekeeping, and you already have the authority to take over municipal court cases, and the situation in municipal court is as bad as you say, why have you not exercised your authority under existing law to preserve justice? Your reputation is not that you are such a shrinking violet as it appears in this situation.

  4. what a joke . give me a break daily a this belongs at the bottom of a bird cage.

  5. Why did the Sheriff's Office not give this situation attention and deal with Ms. Voeller in your court? She lived in the unincorporated part of the county and it would be easy to sit on her road and stop her. Do you and the Sheriff not take these situations seriously?

  6. The Sheriff's Office arrested Ms. Voeller. They did everything they could.

    I asked the City to let us handle both cases since they were committed just 4 hours apart. The City Prosecutor refused.

    I don't know how we can take it more seriously.

    On the one hand opponents of my efforts claim this a power-mad move intended to empire build, which makes absolutely no sense since the DA's Office gets nothing but more work, not additional resources, and this seems to enrage a small group of influential people (although in 18 years as DA I have never been stopped so much out in public by people I do not know telling me not to give up on this issue).

    On the other is the claim that some claim they "really don't care where the DUIIs are tried...." but that things must be just fine in Muni Court because the City Council says it's so.

    I have learned to try to first get to a result by consensus. If that doesn't work then I try to persuade the other side. If that doesn't work I might ultimately use the authority the law grants me.
    That is where we are now, even if the City characterizes that as "Josh is going to sue us." I tried to save the City a lot of grief and money by explaining over and over again why I have persued this issue not just recently, but for years.

    With something as awful as what happened to Ms. Voeller I would hope even people with mixed feelings would recognize that the system the way it is operating now is not working well and needs improvement.

  7. Sorry, I don't understand and the newspaper article did not explain. What happened to the DUII case from the sheriff's office arrest that you had jurisdiction over? Was Ms. Voeller convicted and sent to alcohol treatment?

  8. Ms. Voeller was represented by the same defense attorney as in the Municipal Court case and her case was delayed.
    She died before the case could be brought to court.
    Her case is exactly why this nonsense needs to stop.

  9. Whatever you say. But I really don't see how a change in courts could have saved Mrs. Voeller's life. I am glad that you do.
    For example, you have said you already have the authority to take over municipal court cases and the Boone law is simply "housekeeping" If that is the case, I don't understand why you have not taken over cases before. If you had done that, do you think Mrs. Voeller would still be alive?

  10. I am not sure if the City forcing Ms. Voeller into treatment in November 2009 when they lowered a crime down to an infraction would have made a difference.

    But yes, maybe if I had been less "collaborative" and less willing to sit down and talk with city officials....Maybe if I had just asserted my authority a year ago it might have made a difference and that haunts me

  11. The only obsession that District Attorney Josh Marquis has with justice is that he wants to have total control over Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants (DUII) cases (“The rule of law in Astoria,” The Daily Astorian, Jan. 20).

    His brand of justice and prosecuting, in the 21st century, is to submit and prosecute cases written in such a manner that there is a conviction. No matter if the cases written have so little basis in fact. No one minds, I believe, to appear in court for breaking the law and getting a DUII, as that is against the law. The issue is that Marquis’ brand of justice is at best, questionable.

  12. The person who wrote that letter has been repeatedly prosecuted (and convicted) by my office for DUII.

    Again, I'll leave almost any comment up. My office prosecutes cases where we believe a crime has occurred. I don't a "Brand" of justice other than that every person should be treated fairly without regard to who they know or how much money they have.

  13. Are you now tracking the people who respond on this internet site? It is only fair that you tell us the truth.

  14. No I do not track the people who come to this website......
    The only time I would be if someone were threatening to physically harm me or someone else (it has happened before and I was unable to find out much)

  15. Josh, and interesting question was asked on another website that got no answer. Perhaps you could respond here. If you win in your efforts to take over DUII cases in the Astoria Municipal Court, what do the citizens in Clatsop County get for it? That is, you and a few others have been quick to point out perceived problems in the prosecution and trials held in the municipal court, but are the prosecution and trials in the County Courts any better? For example, it was asked if your office has ever misplaced a case? Has your office ever put a criminal back on the street because of poor preparation? Have people who committed crimes been given better plea deals because of who they are? Have county judges not recused themselves when they should have because of a relationship between them and a defendant? Basically speaking, why is your office better than the City of Astoria?

  16. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  17. The voters get equal justice undervthe law.
    No more perception of special treatment regardless of who you know.
    The DAs office are professional prosecutors, not part timers and we generally prevail far more often in court.