Barber sentenced on DWI charge

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 16, 2011

By Shavonne Potts
SALISBURY — Rowan County Commissioner Jon Barber pleaded guilty Monday to driving drunk when he wrecked his car in May.
It was Barber’s second driving while impaired guilty plea since 2008. A visiting judge sentenced Barber to two years unsupervised probation even though prosecutors asked for jail time.
This the latest in a string of alcohol-related incidents for Barber, who was re-elected to the Board of Commissioners in November.
And the commissioner’s legal troubles aren’t over. He faces another court appearance in October on a charge that he stole a bottle of wine from a local convenience store.
Barber, of 335 Umberger Road, was arrested May 8 after crashing his Ford Focus on Graham Road at N.C. 150. He refused a sobriety breath test and was taken to Rowan Regional Medical Center for blood to be drawn for testing.
In addition to DWI, he was charged by the N.C. State Highway Patrol with driving left of center and failing to maintain lane control. The Rowan District Attorney’s Office dismissed those charges as part of his plea agreement.
The Monday hearing took place during a special session of District Court presided over by Guilford County Judge Thomas Foster Jr., who was already assigned to hear a custody matter.
Local judges did not hear the case because they knew Barber or were familiar with him.
Rowan Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Suneson gave the judge highlights of the incident. She said Barber failed a field sobriety test.
“He couldn’t keep his balance,” Suneson told the judge.
At one point, Barber apologized to the trooper for “bothering him,” she said.
Attending Alcoholics Anonymous
Barber’s attorney, David Bingham, told the judge Barber continues to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and sees a therapist. He entered an inpatient alcohol rehabilitation program after his arrest.
“He has struggled with alcohol in the recent past. He has taken substantial steps to avoid this in the future,” Bingham said.
He also told the judge Barber is a farmer and twice-elected county commissioner.
Foster said he had not planned to say much, but felt the need to address people in elected positions such as Barber’s.
“I think we — you and I — have a higher standard of behavior,” Foster said.
He said if he got a speeding ticket, he’d expect harsher punishment because he is a judge.
“I’m not here to scold you, Mr. Barber. You have a higher duty to the people of Rowan County,” he said.
Foster also ordered Barber to a psychological assessment and pay a $1,000 fine, which the judge also said “more than I would usually do.”
And Barber must surrender his driver’s license until the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles determines he can safely operate a vehicle.
Foster said he took into consideration Barber’s time in the inpatient alcohol treatment program. He said Barber made extra steps to show he’s improved.
Jail was possible
Barber could have received jail time, and Suneson requested it. She did not specify a sentence length.
“In lieu of jail time, the judge gave him credit for the inpatient treatment,” District Attorney Brandy Cook said Monday afternoon.
She said her office asked for jail time because Barber had a prior DWI conviction, his blood alcohol content was .21 — more than twice the .08 legal limit — and he wrecked.
“As with any DWI case, our office is concerned for the well-being of the innocent drivers who may find themselves on the same road as an impaired driver,” Cook said.
Cook said it is not typical for a person to received unsupervised probation for a second DWI conviction. However, she added, the ultimate decision is up to the judge.
Barber also pleaded guilty to driving while impaired in June 2008 after a Rowan County sheriff’s deputy found him in February of that year passed out in his car near the corner of Sherrills Ford and Long Branch roads. His blood-alcohol content measured .18.
In May 2010, Barber resigned from his sixth-grade teaching job at Southeast Middle School amid allegations he showed up drunk for morning classes.
Former District Attorney Bill Kenerly considered charges. He said, though, there were no criminal violations involving students and that Barber could not be “successfully prosecuted” for other crimes because the Rowan-Salisbury School System had a blood-alcohol test performed with a device whose results are not admissable in court.
Several days after resigning, Barber admitted to being an alcoholic in a letter to the Post.
In June, the State Bureau of Investigation charged Barber with the April 10 larceny of a $2.99 bottle of wine from a Rushco convenience store on Jake Alexander Boulevard.
An employee reported that about 6 a.m. that Sunday morning, a man took a bottle of wine into the men’s restroom and left the empty bottle there. Salisbury Police Chief Rory Collins said a surveillance video showed a man who “appeared to be Jon Barber.”
Local authorities turned the case over to the SBI because Barber is a public official and his brother a former law enforcement officer.
Another hearing ahead
A visiting judge will also hear that case, which has tentatively been set for Oct. 4.
Barber has not responded to questions or returned telephone calls about his charges. Monday afternoon, he sent an email to the Post that said, “God continues to see me through my personal trials. My faith will not waiver. I could not be where I am without His grace and mercy.”
Barber attended a county commissioners meeting later Monday. Neither he nor other board members mentioned the plea hearing.
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.