By Tom Bartley
An Iraq combat veteran returns to Peekskill City Court Monday facing a tough choice: plead guilty to driving under the influence of drugs, ending a protracted, costly round of appearances, or demand a trial, which could leave him in legal limbo for another year or more. What separates Alexander A. Lazos from other DUI defendants, at least for now, is his likely defense.
After he brushed another car at a Peekskill gas station last July, police say, Lazos failed to walk a straight line and tested positive for drugs, leading to a charge of driving under their influence. The former marine, however, contends that a 2003 battlefield brain injury caused him to flunk the field sobriety test. The “drugs,” moreover, were doctor-prescribed for his injury and permitted even when driving, Lazos says.
His case has attracted the interest of Hudson Valley veterans. A clutch of former servicemen, rallied by veterans advocate William Nazario of Cortlandt Manor, stood shoulder to shoulder with Lazos outside court after his latest appearance, April 2. Nazario also spurred legislative action. In Albany, a bill proposes issuing identification cards that would allow all who have sustained a TBI to have documented proof of their condition.
Lazos, a 1999 graduate of Harriman’s Monroe-Woodbury High School, has moved to North Carolina since his arrest last July. He estimates that flying back for court appearances has already cost him about $8,000. Still, after his April 2 appearance in Peekskill court, Lazos rejected any talk of a plea deal. “How can I plead guilty when I didn’t do what they say?” he asks.
Lazos, now 30, says he had just completed an appointment at Montrose last July 5 when he pulled into the Mobil station on Welcher Avenue, looking to buy a cold soft drink. The police later quoted another motorist as complaining that Lazos’ car had brushed his, causing minor bumper damage. Unaware he had clipped the other car, Lazos says, he was sitting on a curb, having his drink, when the police arrived.
Peekskill Police Officer Chatoyer Woodland inspected the Subaru that Lazos had been driving, found “minor damage” to the bumper, then talked with the operator. “Mr. Lazos … was swaying and could not keep his balance. While interviewing Mr. Lazos, he used his vehicle to keep his balance,” Woodland noted in his arrest report. “Mr. Lazos appeared to be under the influence of a prescription drug.”
The ID card legislation, introduced in Albany by state Sen. Greg Ball of Patterson, would allow anyone with a traumatic brain injury to document an alternative explanation for seeming intoxication. The bill, S6089, has been referred to the Senate Transportation Committee, where action is expected shortly, said Ball’s director of legislative affairs Krista Gobins. It has already won unanimous approval in the Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs, which Ball chairs. A similar measure in the Assembly, A9473, is now before that chamber’s transportation panel.
Both bills note the ease with which TBI can mimic intoxication. “Common symptoms of TBI, even in mild cases, are dilation of one or both pupils of the eyes, slurred speech, weakness or numbness in the extremities, loss of coordination, and/or increased confusion, restlessness, or agitation,” the Ball legislation points out. “Due to these symptoms, a person diagnosed with TBI, even a mild case, can appear to be intoxicated, or under the influence of a controlled substance.” Read More…