News 12 at 6 o'clock, April 28, 2008
AUGUSTA, Ga.--- An influential state lawmaker from Evans was scheduled to be in court in Atlanta Tuesday to face charges in a DUI case.
News 12 has learned that he won't be there and there is conflicting information about which side is requesting this latest delay. It's been nearly a year since Ben Harbin crashed his car and crossed the line between lawmaker -- and accused law-breaker.
The mugshot sent shockwaves through local political circles. A popular state representative staring glassy-eyed at the camera.
The police report tells the story. On a long stretch of memorial drive near downtown Atlanta at 1:12 on a Sunday morning, Ben Harbin slams his Nissan Maxima into a power pole. He tells an officer he swerved to miss someone in the road but the officer notes a strong odor of alcohol, slurred speech and
bloodshot glassy eyes.
The report goes on to say representative Harbin failed a field sobriety test, telling the officer more than once--- "I just want to go home..."
Back in Augusta, attorney Jim Duncan has seen his share of DUI cases. But there are two things that make this more than the average DUI case. For one, Harbin is an influential state lawmaker and head of the house appropriations committee.
And while some cases are resolved in a few months, this one has been delayed time and again... for nearly a year. Six times so far.
(Rogers) "What's the advantage in delaying a DUI case?"
(Jim Duncan) "Well Richard, sometimes you have an officer leave the force, you can have witnesses move..."
(Rogers) "So if the witness disappears- the case could go away..."
(Duncan) "It could be critical for the case- you may have a witness that saw something, a policemen that made the stop or that gave a test and if that policeman is not in court to testify, you don't have the evidence to support a conviction."
Again, Harbin was arrested on May 20th, 2007. News 12 examined the court docket for the city of Atlanta Municipal Court for Thursday July 19th. It was the first of many delays for the Harbin case. So what became of the next DUI case on the docket? A man named Harden. We checked and found out his case was closed by August 16th, 2007 with a guilty plea and a 15 hundred dollar fine. He was ordered to attend a DUI course and serve 100 hours of community service.
Lee Benedict is hoping to replace Ben Harbin in Atlanta. He's the only candidate so far to announce he's running.
Benedict says, "When you have the word representative before your name, and you refuse to account for it, and refuse to talk to the people who hired you, the people who supported you all along--- its kind of a slap in the face."
As a DUI attorney, Jim Duncan says generally, the longer a DUI case goes, the better it is for his clients.
He looked over looking the incident report from the night of Ben Harbin's crash. The report says Harbin refused to submit to a blood/alcohol test at the hospital, something that may be to the lawmakers advantage.
Duncan says," think of it like this, the mere fact of drinking alcohol and driving is not against the law in this state. So if someone smells like alcohol and they've been driving- that's not against the law. If it were, you couldn't have a restaurant or a bar in this town. you just can't be impaired - or over the legal limit."
As for Harbin, he remains a popular representative. But he hasn't made a comment on the case except for a written apology shortly after the crash.
Nor has he explained why it's taking so long for what appears to be a routine DUI case to be resolved.
Just last week- Harbin sent News 12 an e-mail-- saying: "I hope there will not be another delay. That's up to Atlanta."
Since that e-mail we've learned Tuesday's scheduled hearing will be delayed again. The solicitor's office says Harbin's attorney, Robert S. Highsmith Jr., is requesting the case be continued. Highsmith says the solicitors office is requesting this latest delay.
Harbin says he's anxious to sit down and talk about all this - after the legal issues are resolved.