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Sun., Nov. 23
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End of the road

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Members of the Watertown City Council realize that sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.

They wisely opted not to spend $4,200 on six signs for drivers traveling through Thompson Park. During their meeting Tuesday, officials decided against taking measures to clarify when people could use the roadways in the park.

The issue stemmed from a legal case involving a 32-year-old Carthage resident who was pulled over by a police officer last year for driving in the park after it had closed. Signs at some of the entrances state that the hours of the park are from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., but James J. Cheal drove into the park shortly before midnight Nov. 12, according to Watertown police.

The officer pulled Mr. Cheal over to inquire what he was doing in the park, police said. Mr. Cheal was found to be intoxicated with a blood alcohol content of .20, more than twice the legal limit in New York State, police said.

Mr. Cheal was issued a ticket for being in the park after it was closed and charged with aggravated driving while intoxicated. Watertown City Judge Catherine L. Palermo dismissed the case because the signs at Thompson Park do not make it clear if motorists may use the streets in it. Since there was no legal basis for the police stop, the charge of aggravated DWI had to be thrown out, Judge Palermo ruled.

It’s unfortunate that someone who was driving a car while drunk was allowed to avoid a penalty. Aggravated DWI is the more stringent charge that can be leveled against intoxicated motorists. This charge is used when the driver’s BAC is at least .18; impaired drivers with BACs of at least .08 are charged with DWI.

But Judge Palermo was correct to rule as she did. And contrary to the opinion of prosecutor Christina E. Stone, who handled the case in City Court, this wasn’t merely “a technicality.”

It’s an important legal principle based on the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. If the rationale for the search is not legal, anything resulting from the search cannot be used against a defendant.

In the judicial field, such evidence is called “fruit of the poisonous tree.” No one takes comfort in dismissing such a case against someone who risked the lives of anyone else on the road by driving drunk. But we cannot let the government use illegal searches to collect evidence against us.

This case was also muddied by the fact that people who belong to and work for the Watertown Golf Club, which is part of Thompson Park, may use the park’s roadways after hours, according to a city ordinance. This has the potential of invoking another legal challenge based on the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law. How can a governmental entity allow some people to use public roadways at certain hours of the day based on their affiliation to a golf club while excluding others who have no connection to the facility?

It was important for members of the City Council to discuss this issue, but they made the right choice to not pursue it any further. It’s also good that they opted not to appeal Judge Palermo’s decision, although the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office has not made it known if it will file an appeal.

City police should continue patrolling the park to ensure nothing suspicious is occurring there after hours. Diligence on their part has most likely prevented an untold number of illegal acts from being committed.

But trying to discern who is driving on the roadways through Thompson Park because of the Watertown Golf Club and who isn’t is a difficult needle to thread. Police should keep an eye on motorists but let them go on their way if they don’t see anything questionable going on.

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