Kansas Democratic lawmakers jumped on social media Monday to criticize the sentence handed down to state Sen. Gene Suellentrop — which includes two days in jail — for driving drunk the wrong way down I-70 in Topeka at near 90 mph, leading police on a chase and calling an officer “donut boy” after his arrest.
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Democrat, tweeted that the sentence shows “why people don’t like or trust politicians.”
“Not only did he drive drunk, but he evaded police, nearly hit a van of students, and then insulted police once he was finally stopped. Two days is not the same punishment others would have gotten,” Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat Tweeted.
But Shawnee County Judge Jason Geier, who heard the case, was careful to note that Suellentrop was treated like any other defendant in his courtroom. Geier said the suspension of the vast majority of Suellentrop’s prison time — he could have drawn a sentence as long as nine months — was “typical in these cases,” especially given Suellentrop’s clean criminal history.
Suellentrop pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of driving under the influence and reckless driving, meaning he neither admitted or disputed the charges. In exchange, Shawnee County prosecutors dropped a felony charge of fleeing and eluding law enforcement that would have forced him from office if he had been found guilty.
His sentence includes a $775 fine, a year of probation, mandatory therapy and an alcohol intervention program. The charges Suellentrop pleaded to carried a maximum nine months in prison combined, but all but two days of the sentence were suspended.
Casey Meek, a long-time Kansas DUI attorney, agreed with Geier’s assessment.
“It doesn’t strike me as special treatment,” Meek said. “If I had somebody as a client who wasn’t Mr. Suellentrop that’s the exact deal I would hope for.”
Meek said it is possible Suellentrop was treated more harshly than other defendants and that often prosecutors do not pursue the felony fleeing and eluding charge because it is difficult to prove.
Felony fleeing and eluding, he said, requires evidence that the defendant committed five distinct traffic violations after police saw the vehicle.
Jonathan Carter, a spokesman for the Wyandotte County District Attorney’s Office, said in an email that 90 percent of that county’s criminal cases end in plea agreements rather than trials.
Suellentrop’s defense attorney Tom Lemon took a defiant stance on Monday, arguing that throughout the process the Wichita Republican had actually received more aggressive treatment than others would have for similar offenses.
“Because of the place he holds he’s not in the DUI docket with similar cases,” Lemon said.
The senator applied for diversion, in which prosecutors agree to hold off on moving forward with charges in exchange for meeting certain conditions, but was denied. Diversion is often used for many low-level first-time offenses, including DUIs.
A spokesman for Senate President Ty Masterson declined to comment Monday. Since March, Republican leadership has consistently said Suellentrop’s continued role in the Senate should be determined by voters. He is up for reelection in 2024.
Some members of the Republican caucus, including Sens. Dennis Pyle and Rob Olson, called for Suellentrop’s resignation in the spring.
Rep. Jo Ella Hoye, a Lenexa Democrat, called the senator “unfit to serve” in a tweet Monday.
Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, an Overland Park Democrat, said she has “encouraged (Suellentrop) to reflect on his behavior and the type of leadership he believes Kansans deserve” in the months since his arrest.
According to police and 911 audio, Suellentrop was alleged to have spent 10 minutes driving the wrong way on Topeka highways, nearly colliding with other drivers, early on March 16. He continued driving and led a Capitol Police officer on a short chase when they tried to arrest him. Police said they used two tactical vehicle interventions to stop Suellentrop’s car.
A criminal affidavit released in April alleged that Suellentrop threatened to fight an officer, in addition to calling him “donut boy,” and registered a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit hours after he was arrested. Lemon said the officer included “salacious” comments he alleged Suellentrop made but that they were not heard in dash cam video of the arrest.
Many of the comments, however, were alleged to have been made after Suellentrop’s arrest as he and the officer waited for a blood alcohol test. A body camera may not have been on at that point.
“This was a high intensity situation and maybe there were some misunderstandings,” Lemon said.
Leaving the courthouse Monday, Suellentrop stared straight ahead and did not acknowledge reporter questions about whether he would resign.
Suellentrop was first elected to the State Senate in 2017 after eight years in the Kansas House of Representatives. His colleagues removed him from his position as majority leader in April but have taken no action to oust him from the Senate.
He is the second Kansas lawmaker convicted of a crime this year. Rep. Mark Samsel, a Wellsville Republican, pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct last month for kicking a student while substitute teaching.
Both men remain in office, as does Rep. Aaron Coleman, a Kansas City Democrat accused of a long history of abusive behavior toward women.