(Updated to recast lead, adds more testimony from Suellentrop’s lawyer and legislative reaction)
Republican state Sen. Gene Suellentrop on Monday dodged a felony charge when he pleaded no contest to driving under the influence and reckless driving stemming from his arrest for driving the wrong way on Interstate 70.
The former Senate majority leader was sentenced to six months in jail on the DUI charge, and it was suspended to 12 months supervised probation after he serves two days in the Shawnee County Jail. He also was fined $750.
The Wichita lawmaker was sentenced to 90 days in jail on the reckless driving charge, and it was suspended to six months of supervised probation with a $25 fine.
He also has to undergo eight therapy sessions for substance abuse.
Both sentences are to run concurrently. Suellentrop will start his jail sentence Nov. 18, a week before Thanksgiving.
As part of the plea deal, prosecutors dropped the more serious felony charge of attempting to elude police. A felony conviction would have cost him his position in the Kansas Senate.
“There are many lessons to be learned in circumstances such as these,” Suellentrop told Shawnee County District Judge Jason Geier.
“I can assure you I have learned my share. I take full responsibilty for my actions and I apologize for those actions,” he said.
“You will not see me in this court, or any other court of law, on any similar infractions.”
Suellentrop left the Shawnee County Courthouse with his lawyer after the hearing without talking to reporters.
Suellentrop was arrested in the early morning hours of March 16 for driving the wrong way on Interstate 70 near downtown Topeka.
Suellentrop’s vehicle reportedly had been clocked at speeds of about 90 mph or more as it headed eastbound in the westbound lanes of I-70.
A police affidavit showed that Suellentrop nearly collided with other vehicles in his SUV as he headed the wrong way on the interstate.
The Kansas Highway Patrol said it had used two tactical vehicle interventions to bring Suellentrop’s vehicle to a stop.
A blood sample taken the night of the arrest revealed that Suellentrop had a blood-alcohol level of 0.17, more than twice the legal level of 0.08 in Kansas, according to the probable cause affidavit in the case.
The 69-year-old state senator at one point referred to the arresting officer as “donut boy” and said he could “take” him based on the legislator’s background as a high school athlete, according to the affidavit.
The sentence immediately drew a sharp reaction from Democratic lawmakers on Twitter.
“He got two days in jail for his actions,” tweeted Democratic state Sen. Cindy Holscher of Overland Park.
“Not only did he drive drunk, but he evaded police…and then insulted police once he was finally stopped,” Holscher tweeted.
“Two days is not the same punishment others would have gotten. Where’s the justice?” she asked.
Democratic state Rep. Stephanie Clayton chipped in on Twitter as well.
“This is why people don’t like or trust politicians. He should have suffered the same consequences as any other Kansan,” she said.
Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes took a softer tone.
“Since, Sen. Suellentrop’s arrest in March, I have encouraged him to reflect on his behavior and the type of leadership he believes Kansans deserve representing them in Topeka,” she tweeted.
Suellentrop’s lawyer, Tom Lemon, disputed statements that Suellentrop was somehow argumentative with the trooper the night of the senator’s arrest.
Lemon suggested that the probable cause affidavit “added some things that were a bit salacious which were grasped by people and sort of run with.”
Lemon said he had a court reporter take a transcript of the video showing Suellentrop’s interaction with the trooper – who he described as “young” and “conscientous” – the night of the senator’s arrest.
“Once he figured out what was going on, he was not argumentative, he was not combative, he was not disagreeable,” Lemon said.
“He was, frankly, what I would expect for a 69-year-old intoxicated man dealing with a younger trooper,” Lemon said.
However, the affidavit indicated that Suellentrop made the “donut boy” comment about the Highway Patrol trooper while waiting to provide a breath sample in the Intoxilyzer room at the Docking Building near the Capitol.
The comment about taking on the trooper was made at Stormont Vail Hospital where a blood sample was drawn from Suellentrop under a court order after he refused to provide a breath sample.
It was not known how much of those interactions were recorded.
Lemon said the case immediately started to take on a life of its own after Suellentrop was arrested and the case was dismissed hours later for a lack of a probable cause.
Lemon said it was just a matter of the case paperwork not making it to the judge by the time the senator appeared in court that morning.
Suellentrop, he said, was released at that time until charges were filed.
“A lot of the people that see things that occur don’t necessarily understand exactly how the system works,” Lemon said.
“He was treated just like anyone else because the paperwork wasn’t there,” he said.
Lemon, however, readily acknowledged Suellentrop’s mistakes.
“This is a case that’s serious. Thank God no one was hurt here,” Lemon said.
“Frankly, Mr. Suellentrop had drank too much and Mr. Suellentrop did not know that the police were behind him. He should not have ever done that,” he said.
“As we stand here in front of you, he’s a 69-year-old man who doesn’t have any criminal history.
“He’s a parent. He’s a husband. He’s a father. He’s grandfather. He’s a business owner. All other aspects of his life are in good shape, but for this very, very bad mistake.”
According to the Department of Revenue, Suellentrop’s driver’s license has been suspended until June 27, 2022, for not providing a breath sample.
Suellentrop can apply to get his driving privileges reinstated after 90 days, a time period the senator said has already elapsed.
He said he plans to seek reinstatement of those privileges. The court ordered him to have an ignitation interlock device installed on his vehicle during probation.
Suellentrop said last week he plans to return to the Legislature in January.