PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Arthur N. Votolato spent some time on the other side of the bench yesterday, a appearing at the state Traffic Tribunal to face an accusation of refusing to submit to a breath test. Votolato, who has been the state's only bankruptcy judge for decades, smelled of alcohol when the Warwick police stopped his car on Post Road two weeks ago, according to a police report. After eating dinner on Federal Hill, he had been driving at night with his headlights off. Votolato pleaded not guilty to the traffic violation yesterday before Judge Albert Ciullo. A conference on the matter is scheduled for next Wednesday. His lawyer, Richard S. Humphrey, said the police violated Votolato's rights and exaggerated the facts of the case. The headlights were off because of a mechanical problem, Humphrey said. "He's guilty of driving with a bad alternator, that's it."
On Aug. 27, at about 9:23 p.m., Sgt. Robert C. Rocco was patrolling Post Road when he saw a white Mazda convertible in the opposite lane with its lights off, according to a report he wrote later. Rocco pulled the car over. Votolato emerged, explaining that his car's alternator was failing. Rocco smelled alcohol on Votolato's breath and noticed he was staggering and his eyes were red, the report said. Suspecting that Votolato was drunk, Rocco administered a field sobriety test, which he said the judge failed. A passenger also appeared too drunk to drive, Rocco said, so he had the car towed. Back at police headquarters, at about 10 p.m., Rocco said he asked Votolato to take the breath test, and he refused. At 10:45, Rocco said, the judge signed a form declining to take the test and got a ride home.
His lawyer said Votolato was unsteady that night because of his artificial hip. And he said the police violated his rights by informing him of the consequences of refusing the test only after he had done so. "This is a case that could happen to any [elderly man] with a broken hip that went out to dinner," Humphrey said. The police are asking to have Votolato's driver's license suspended while the court case proceeds, Humphrey said. He said he will challenge that request. Votolato, 74, who lives near the site of the traffic stop in Warwick, was appointed the U.S. District Court's bankruptcy referee in 1968. When a separate U.S. Bankruptcy Court was created in Rhode Island years later, he was named its first and only judge. Under Rhode Island law, anyone who drives a car consents to a chemical test. Someone suspected of drunken driving who refuses to take the test can face fines and the loss of his driver's license. Votolato was not charged with drunken driving, a criminal offense.
PROVIDENCE -- The state Traffic Tribunal this week dismissed a case against Arthur N. Votolato, the federal bankruptcy judge who was accused of refusing to submit to a breath test after a traffic stop. Magistrate Domenic A. Disandro III ruled Tuesday that a Warwick police sergeant "did not have reasonable grounds" to think Votolato was drunk when he pulled him over on Post Road on Aug. 27.
Votolato, 74, who heads the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Providence, had been driving with his car's headlights off, traveling from dinner on Federal Hill in Providence toward his Warwick home. After Sgt. Robert C. Rocco pulled him over at 9:23 p.m., Votolato emerged from his car and told the officer that the lights were off because of an electrical problem. Rocco said the judge "staggered" when he walked, and failed a series of field sobriety tests before refusing the chemical test.
But the magistrate ruled one of the field tests unreliable, and found that Votolato's age and health problems, including an artificial hip, could explain his performance on another test. Considered alone, the fact that Votolato's lights were off, and that he was traveling at slightly over the speed limit, was not enough to justify Rocco's suspicion, the magistrate ruled. Votolato paid a $75 fine and $25 in court costs for the headlight violation.
In an interview yesterday, Votolato said the case should never have been brought. He drank two glasses of wine over dinner at the restaurant Viola's, he said, and he obtained an affidavit from a host at the restaurant who vouched for his sobriety. Why did he refuse the breath test? "I knew I had two glasses of wine," Votolato said. "I didn't know what the result was going to be, and I wasn't about to take the chance without talking to a doctor or a lawyer." Votolato said he was not fully advised of his rights and had little opportunity to contact a lawyer before the test. Votolato called himself the victim of an "overzealous" and "dishonest" police officer. "I still cannot believe how easy it is to get in trouble," he said. The judge noted that the traffic magistrate questioned the officer's veracity during his bench ruling Tuesday. Magistrate DiSandro said Rocco reported the entire traffic stop, including the field tests, took just two minutes. "This is not credible evidence before the court," the magistrate said, according to a transcript of the hearing. Stephen M. McCartney, the Warwick police chief, said he has received no complaints about Rocco's credibility and noted that the attorney general's office, after reviewing the case, agreed to proceed with it.