VIETNAM VETERAN John Wayne Ruff struggled to Multnomah County Circuit Court last Friday, March 14, to defend himself against a five-year-old driving under the influence (DUI) charge, originally received while crossing the street on his electric handicapped scooter.
"This is ridiculous. The judge dismissed the case five years ago," Ruff, 60, exclaimed in frustration. His friend, Doug Thompson, pushed him across SW 4th, toward the courthouse, in a wheeled walker. "And I did it myself, without a public defender. I just told him the truth."
Ruff, who says he contracted Agent Orange Syndrome while serving in Vietnam, has trouble enunciating his words. He says the cops who arrested him may have mistaken his slurred speech for intoxication. Nevertheless, when he appeared for arraignment before Judge Michael J. McShane in November 2003, McShane asked him what kind of car he had been driving.
"So I told him, I wasn't driving anything," Ruff said. "I was on an electric motor scooter, and there was one block that I couldn't ride [in the street] so I tried to go around across the street."
McShane threw the case out. But four months later, in February 2004, the apparently undeterred district attorney's office reissued the charges against Ruff, and got a different judge to issue a warrant for his arrest. The DA sent Ruff the warrant in the mail, but apparently no one made any efforts to arrest the man, despite the fact that Ruff's arresting officers knew where he was living because they had helped get him home with his scooter after his first arrest.
Ruff was eventually arrested in November 2007 and issued a new trial date. In the nearly five years since his first court appearance, Ruff had a dual hip replacement, and his legs are now bowed. No longer able to walk more than a few feet, he trembled all over with the effort of climbing the four steps to the courthouse. He was under pressure to get into court—otherwise, the judge would issue a bench warrant for his failure to appear.
Ruff's attorney, Eric Deitrick, had tried to bargain with the supervising DA, Jeff Howes of the misdemeanor unit, on February 25, but Howes wouldn't concede. So Deitrick had no option but to take Ruff before the judge.
Coincidentally for Ruff and his attorney, the case happened to come up before Judge McShane again, in Room 608, last Friday. "I remember I dismissed this case in 2003," said McShane, who seemed surprised to see Ruff back in the courtroom. "I remember the case because it's the only time I can recall seeing someone given a DUI on a handicapped scooter."
Deitrick moved to dismiss the case again because of the DA's failure to bring a speedy trial, and McShane agreed to grant a dismissal on Wednesday, March 19, unless the DA can supply evidence of why it has taken three and a half years to bring Ruff in on the warrant.
"I, to be honest, am quite surprised given the nature of the case and the difficulty of understanding on any given day whether the defendant is intoxicated or not, to see that the state has issued the case," added McShane.
Ruff shifted uncomfortably in the dock as McShane listened to unsuccessful arguments from Deputy District Attorney Billy Prince about the law on DUIs in Multnomah County.
Once the court proceedings were done with, Ruff called out to McShane, "I was not drunk."
"I remember that," responded McShane. "I remember you told me that four years ago."
Deitrick was pleased with the outcome of the hearing, but frustrated that the DA's prosecutors hadn't agreed to drop it earlier.
"Prosecutors are supposed to use their discretion in picking which cases to prosecute in order to protect the public," says Deitrick. "In this case, the district attorney's office decided to invest thousands and thousands of dollars prosecuting a disabled Vietnam veteran who crossed the street in a motorized wheelchair while smelling of alcohol."
"[Ruff] presents a very sympathetic portrait of a criminal defendant," says Supervising Deputy District Attorney Howes. "But I think if we can dissuade him from weaving his scooter in and out of traffic on a busy street, while apparently intoxicated, then we can actually prolong his life."
Asked whether prosecuting the case is a worthwhile use of taxpayers' money, Howes responds: "Given the facts as we know them, I think it is."
Outside the court, Ruff waited on the corner of SW 5th and Salmon for his friend Thompson to fetch a battered Ford Taurus and drive him back to a hotel in Northeast Portland, where he lives month to month on his social security checks.
"It's ridiculous that they'd drag him down here," said Thompson. "The guy has a hard enough time dealing with the day to day, the last thing he needs is to have to come down here on some messed-up charge that was dismissed five years ago."
"Justice is the greatest thing in the world, but the justice system, that's a different matter," said Ruff. "Now I plan to go back to my room, lie down on my bed, and wait for them to come and kiss my ass."