The arrest of California Highway Patrol Officer Craig Peyer on murder charges has deprived prosecutors of an important witness in other cases, forcing them in some instances to drop charges rather than proceed without Peyer's testimony.
The San Diego city attorney's office says that if accused drivers in cases where Peyer was the sole arresting officer contest the charges and force the case to trial, the city will drop minor traffic charges. Meanwhile, the San Diego County district attorney's office has already elected to drop one misdemeanor case for reasons that include the fact that Peyer is in jail and might not make a credible witness.
"We didn't want to interfere with the other case," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Donald MacNeil, referring to the case in which Peyer is accused of killing Cara Knott. "Nor did we want to have (as a witness) someone whose credibility might be cast into doubt."
MacNeil, head of the district attorney's South Bay office, said Friday that he had chosen earlier in the week not to proceed with a case alleging a violation of the motor vehicle code in which Peyer would have been a witness.
The case involved a young Tijuana man picked up at a CHP checkpoint on a charge of "taking a vehicle without permission." Peyer would have testified to why the CHP officers had "probable cause" to suspect the man and therefore stopped him.
But MacNeil said Peyer's arrest was not the only reason for not proceeding with the case. He said the California Supreme Court is currently considering the constitutionality of law-enforcement checkpoints, so it was advisable for the office to hold off.
"In the case that I had, it's no big deal," MacNeil said. "We are frequently forced to make decisions on cases where we have unavailable witnesses. . . . It's regrettable in any case . . . but it's something prosecutors learn to accept."
Linda Miller, a spokesman for the district attorney's office, said the office has no "blanket policy" on how to handle cases involving Peyer, who was charged two weeks ago with murder in the Dec. 27 slaying of the 20-year-old San Diego State University student.
"It depends on how significant his testimony is," Miller said. "There may be a case where another officer was with him. I don't know of any case so far that we have dropped solely because we didn't want to call him as a witness."
Stuart Swett, senior chief deputy city attorney in San Diego, said his office, too, would study Peyer's cases individually.
However, Swett said he will be unable to go to trial in cases in which Peyer issued a traffic citation and was the only witness. Swett noted that most minor cases like that are not contested; usually the driver simply pays the fine.
Swett said he would review more serious misdemeanor offenses such as drunken driving or reckless driving on a case-by-case basis. He said the office would try to proceed in cases in which there were witnesses other than Peyer.
"I think its a question of the impracticality," Swett said, when asked precisely why he would not call Peyer as a witness. "I have no reason to think that because of the charge that's lodged against him, that meant that traffic citations he issued for speeding weren't valid."