Cynthia Neff’s attorneys blamed her failed field sobriety tests on her weight, age and bare feet.
A judge blamed it on the wine she drank at an arts fundraiser. Concluding a marathon bench trial Tuesday, Albemarle County Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Higgins found Neff guilty of driving under the influence.
Neff, an area Democratic Party activist and a former county supervisors candidate, was driving home from the fundraiser in the wee hours Oct. 28, when a county police officer pulled her over on Pritchett Lane, a block from her home. She swerved her BMW sedan and drove on the wrong side of the road.
The officer administered four field sobriety tests. Neff, who was 61 at the time, failed each. Dashboard video shown in court displayed her stumbling in a test requiring her to walk a straight line heel to toe.
In February, Neff was found guilty in county General District Court of driving under in the influence. She appealed, leading to Tuesday’s proceedings, which began at 9 a.m. and continued, interrupted by recesses, until after 8 p.m.
Neff’s lawyers hinged much of her defense on Joe Citron, a doctor from Atlanta who testifies as an expert in DUI cases around the country. He told the court that Neff was about 60 pounds over her ideal weight at the time of her arrest, which he said could have made her more unstable than the average person. He also referenced studies that show that people older than 60 often struggle with field sobriety tests.
“The weight issue would go toward not being stable,” Citron said. “You can be a klutz and follow instructions but look terrible because you’re clumsy or klutzy or older.”
During the test, Neff recited the alphabet from F to Z when she was supposed to recite it from F to R and skipped several numbers and counted to 46 when she was supposed to count backward from 64 to 47. She held a foot behind her with her knee bent and swayed when an officer instructed her to hold a foot in front of her while keeping her knee straight.
Taking the tests barefoot on a rural, asphalt road might have affected Neff’s performance, Citron said. Neff wasn’t wearing shoes because her feet hurt, he said.
Her breath-alcohol content registered at 0.09 percent in a test conducted at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail two hours after her arrest. The legal limit in Virginia is 0.08 percent.
Citron testified that the reading could have been artificially inflated by either faulty equipment or by the rate Neff’s body was metabolizing the alcohol in her system, or other factors, such as her body temperature.
Neff’s lawyers, Andre Hakes and Corinne Magee, said the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to stop the former IBM executive.
“She swerves 17 different times in a three-minute time, right to left in lanes,” Higgins said after watching the dashboard video and later issuing the guilty verdict. “I find that not to be consistent with an average individual not drinking.”
Neff told police she drank two glasses of wine at the fundraiser. Officers noted that she had a fake tattoo over her eye when she was stopped. An officer said her eyes were glassy and he smelled alcohol on her breath when she spoke to him.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Matthew Quatrara said in his closing argument that Neff’s driving and failures in the sobriety tests were enough to prove she was driving drunk, regardless of her breath-alcohol content.
Higgins said that while Citron argued the alphabet and number tests were not significant, “neither of these tests had anything to do with her feet, age or weight,” yet Neff still failed both.
Higgins ordered Neff to pay a $250 fine and drive for a year on a restricted license and for six months with an interlock on her car. The judge also ordered Neff to take part in a state alcohol abuse program. A 30-day jail sentence was suspended.
Neff has until Aug. 15 to file an appeal.
She emerged as a key figure in local Democratic Party circles after moving to Albemarle in 2006 following her retirement from IBM. She lost in 2011 to Kenneth C. Boyd in a bid for the Rivanna seat on the county supervisors board and to Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, in 2009 in a state House race.
Shortly before her arrest last fall, Neff used her home to secure a $50,000 bond to bail Albemarle County Supervisor Christopher J. Dumler from jail following his arrest on a forcible sodomy charge. He later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual battery and resigned after a successful court battle to hold his seat.