On Friday, February 28, 2014, a Westchester County jury acquitted Kerry Kennedy, the 54 year old daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, of DWAID, or driving while ability impaired by drugs. Westchester prosecutors contended that on July 13, 2012, Kennedy had knowingly driven her Lexus SUV under the influence of Zolpidem, a generic form of Ambien, the sleep medication. The facts of the case, which to a great degree, were not contested, were that Ms. Kennedy was on her way to an Armonk gym from her house in Bedford, and had taken the Zolpidem shortly before leaving. She drove for five miles on local roads, entered I-684 where she sideswiped a tractor-trailer, and blew out a front tire.
Ms. Kennedy then drove on a bare rim onto Route 22, where police found her near the Armonk exit slumped over the steering wheel. She apparently failed field sobriety tests administered by the investigating officers and admitted that she might have taken an Ambien instead of her thyroid medication. Ms. Kennedy was arrested and charged with one misdemeanor count of driving while ability impaired by drugs. The case centered on whether Ms. Kennedy was aware as she was driving that she had taken the Zolpidem; she claimed that it was a mistake and she thought it was her thyroid pill, (which was similar in size and in a similar bottle, she contended) and prosecutors argued that she intentionally drove under the influence.
Generally speaking, with someone with no prior criminal record, those charged with misdemeanor impaired driving would plea bargain the charge to a non criminal traffic infraction, pay a approximately $600 fine, and agree to a 3 month suspension of their license with conditional privileges to drive to and from work, and for other essential reasons including to obtain medical treatment. Further, it is an extreme rarity for a case of this nature to ever reach the County Court, as the Court of original jurisdiction in this case was the North Castle Justice Court in Armonk.
However, due to the high profile nature of the case and the significant attendance by news organizations, family members, and the public, the case was moved to the ceremonial courtroom of the Westchester County Courthouse. The trial lasted four days and was highlighted by Kennedy’s testimony on Wednesday, in which she was asked many questions about her family history, work and character by her attorneys, which is also not typical in a misdemeanor impaired driving case. Judge Robert Neary permitted this questioning, and Ms. Kennedy denied that she ever knew that she had taken an Ambien before driving.
As prosecutors were never able to prove that Kennedy did know she had taken the Ambien, in my opinion, the verdict was a foregone conclusion, and the jury deliberated for only one hour over two days before rendering their not guilty verdict on February 28, 2014. Had Kennedy been convicted, she was facing up to one year in jail, (although with no criminal record, jail was highly unlikely and probation much more so) a revocation of her license for six months, and fines of approximately $1,000.