Schenectady County

Schenectady officer admits DWI in Bethlehem

Suspended Schenectady police Sgt. William Fennell pleaded guilty Tuesday morning in Bethlehem Town C

Suspended Schenectady police Sgt. William Fennell pleaded guilty Tuesday morning in Bethlehem Town Court to misdemeanor driving while intoxicated, court officials said.

The plea includes no probation time for the first-time drunken-driving offender, but it does carry a license revocation and the requirement that he install an ignition interlock device on any car he has access to for one year. He also must pay a fine and surcharges totaling $900.

Fennell, 39, had already had his license officially revoked in December after a hearing officer found enough evidence to determine he refused a breath test in the case. That revocation expires in December.

Still open is the city police investigation into Fennell. Mayor Gary McCarthy has indicated that the allegations, which included leaving the scene of an accident and refusing the breath test, mean that he may be terminated.

McCarthy could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett said Tuesday morning that he wanted to wait until he saw the formal court paperwork on Fennell’s plea. But he also said the internal investigation continues.

Also, Bennett said, as long as Fennell can’t drive, he can’t be a police officer, or be paid. He will be without pay at least until his license is restored, with the final disposition on his employment still to be determined.

Fennell’s attorney, Kevin K. O’Brien Jr., said his client is eligible for a conditional license that would allow him to drive on the job. O’Brien also said he understands there is a way for him to legally drive at work without the interlock device, but that would require cooperation from the department.

Fennell admitted in court that he drove drunk Nov. 6 in the town of Bethlehem. The plea was in satisfaction of other charges, including leaving the scene of an accident.

Fennell was accused of crashing into another vehicle, fleeing the scene and then crashing his car on the side of the road.

O’Brien said his client took the deal, pleading guilty to misdemeanor driving while intoxicated, over O’Brien’s contention that Fennell should have been allowed to plead guilty to the lower-level charge of driving while ability impaired.

Standing in the way of that was Fennell’s refusal of the breath test and an Albany County District Attorney’s Office policy against reductions in such cases. O’Brien, though, argued exceptions have been made.

A district attorney’s spokeswoman called it a flat rule that governs all such cases and all such defendants.

O’Brien called the incident a one-time mistake that Fennell won’t repeat.

“He’s always to me accepted responsibility for that mistake,” O’Brien said. “But when you look at his entire track record as a person and as a police officer, this was very out of character.”

O’Brien also said his client has taken steps since his arrest to make good, undergoing required treatment.

Fennell has also mentioned to him in passing that he has spoken with recruits about his experience, hoping they won’t make the same mistake. O’Brien did not have further details on when or where Fennell did that.

In addition to the license revocation, Fennell must attend the state Department of Motor Vehicles’ drinking and driving program, along with a victim impact panel.

Though Fennell can’t drive, the interlock device will have to be installed on any car he has access to. The device requires a driver to blow into it to ensure they are not drunk before the car can be started.

The sentence is officially referred to as a conditional discharge. If Fennell gets into trouble again over the next year, the case could be reopened. The drunken-driving conviction will stay on Fennell’s criminal record.

Fennell is an 11-year veteran of the Schenectady Police Department. Regarding his future at the department, O’Brien said he believes Fennell does see himself as a police officer again.

The Selkirk resident was one of three officers to open fire in August on a man police said had a gun. They fired a total of 14 shots, killing Luis Rivera, 33. Authorities have said the shooting appeared to be justified under department policies. That case, though, is still awaiting a final grand jury determination.

The shooting took place less than three months before Fennell’s drunken-driving arrest. O’Brien said Fennell didn’t talk about the shooting, because that investigation was ongoing and O’Brien wasn’t involved. But, O’Brien said he could only speculate, “How could it not affect you?”

Bethlehem police were first alerted to Fennell the day of his arrest by an employee at KT’s Barnside Eatery on Route 9W. He had come in about 3:45 p.m. to pick up an order and appeared intoxicated, Bethlehem police said.

The officer responding to that call then witnessed Fennell rear-end a car at a nearby intersection. It was the second time Fennell hit the car.

He then drove away at high speed, as the Bethlehem officer gave chase. Fennell finally crashed into a tree.

Fennell smelled of alcohol, police testified, his eyes were glassy, his face was red and he was unsteady at times. He also refused two sobriety tests and refused a more comprehensive breath test at the station three times.

Categories: Schenectady County

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