Los Altos Planning Commission Chairman Alexander Samek pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor charges related to his nationally publicized DUI arrest, according to a paper arraignment filed by his attorney Wednesday (Jan. 2.)
CHP officers found Samek asleep in the driver’s seat of his Tesla Model S after they pulled him over for traveling at approximately 70 mph on southbound Highway 101 near Whipple Avenue in Palo Alto at 3:37 a.m. Nov. 30. Driving down 101, Samek failed to respond to the CHP’s lights and sirens, so three officers surrounded his Tesla, and the car’s semi-autonomous technology safely stopped the car in the third lane. An officer allegedly had to rap on Samek’s window to wake him up.
Officers placed Samek in the back of a patrol car and escorted him to a gas station near the Embarcadero Road exit. Samek refused a breathalyzer test, responding politely with a slurred “No, sirt” (sic) to the officer who asked if he would comply, according to the incident report. After securing a warrant, the CHP administered a blood test to determine whether Samek was intoxicated, which he failed. He was booked into the San Mateo County Jail and posted $15,000 bail by that afternoon.
Samek remains chairman of the Los Altos Planning Commission. According to city spokeswoman Erica Ray, he serves at the “discretion of the city council.” No council member responded to the Town Crier’s request for comment about the incident and Samek’s future on the commission.
San Carlos-based lawyer Josh Bentley, whose clients include former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster, submitted a paper arraignment through the county clerk Jan. 2, two days before Samek was scheduled to appear in court. Filing a paper arraignment is an option available to defandants facing misdemeanor charges who are not in custody, said San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, and it meant Samek was not required to show up in court.
“Anyone with those circumstances, out of the 14,000 misdemeanor cases we file a year, can file for a paper arraignment,” Wagstaffe said. “Most average people don’t know (that this is available to them), but retainer attorneys often do because it’s so easy.”
Wagstaffe noted that the attorney must file the paperwork with the clerk in person, which is what oftentimes prevents an attorney from outside the area from doing so.
The county clerk also handles the scheduling of further court hearings, which is how Wagstaffe was alerted that Samek’s pre-trial conference and jury trial dates are already on the books: 8:30 a.m. April 23 and 9 a.m. May 20, respectively.
Although Samek is named as the defendant, California state law on misdemeanors allows him to never walk into a courtroom during prosecution if that is his wish, Wagstaffe said.
Technically, Bentley is the only individual required to show up for court proceedings.
“The attorney can give their client a form in order to act on their behalf,” Wagstaffe said. “But nobody ever does that, they’re always there.”
There is a chance the case could be resolved at the April 23 court date and never go to trial, according to Wagstaffe. Still, Samek and his attorney will adhere to DMV procedures resulting from his refusal to take a breathalyzer test and will likely request that evaluation for the length of license suspension (a maximum of a year’s revocation) be delayed until after his trial.
“The suspension would be worse than the conviction he could get,” Wagstaffe explained. “I bet the defense will go in and file a document with (that) request so that (Samek) can keep driving that nice Tesla of his.”
The fine an offender faces if convicted for the first time driving under the influence is $1,800. Despite Samek’s blood alcohol level being recorded as above 0.08, there are strategies his attorney could employ to potentially dodge the charges, Wagstaffe noted, including citing Tesla’s semi-autonomous capabilities.
“To us, this was not a driverless car,” Wagstaffe said. “The CHP called it ‘driver assisted’ in their report. It could not have taken him home, or off the freeway. It would have kept rolling down Highway 101 toward Los Angeles until it ran out of gas. He had to start it – it is not self-starting.”
Wagstaffe called the incident “as routine of a DUI as you’re going to find.” What made it interesting to the public, and to him, was the technology behind the arrest. Wagstaffe predicted that as autonomous technology advances, there will be more cases like Samek’s.
“There’s no excuse for drunk driving anymore, especially with (services like) Uber and Lyft,” he added. “It should totally cease to exist with self-driving cars.”
Bentley did not respond for comment prior to the Town Crier’s press deadline.