Legislator goes to jail on DUI rap after crash
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House Vice Speaker Jon Riki Karamatsu apologized to family, colleagues and constituents after being arrested yesterday for alleged drunken driving.
The three-term lawmaker, who hit a concrete pillar on the Moanalua Freeway, registered a blood-alcohol level of more than twice the legal limit, according to Honolulu police. If convicted, Karamatsu would lose his driver's license for six months under a law passed last year with Karamatsu's support.
Karamatsu said he wishes to continue to work despite the arrest. He spent the night in jail before a friend posted $500 bail.
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State House Vice Speaker Jon Riki Karamatsu acknowledged that his arrest early yesterday for drunken driving represented a "serious error in judgment."
Police said Karamatsu, a third-term legislator representing Waipahu and Waikele, was traveling westbound on the Moanalua Freeway near the Ahua Street overpass when he struck a concrete pillar at about 1:15 a.m.
He was later arrested after police said he registered a blood-alcohol content level of 0.17, more than twice the legal limit, which qualifies by statute as "excessive" drunken driving.
Under a recent law, anyone with an alcohol level of 0.15 or above faces a mandatory six-month driving prohibition, said Deputy Prosecutor Cheryl Yamaki.
"That means it's an absolute license suspension, as opposed to having a 30-day license suspension but being able to drive to and from work," she said.
The tougher penalties were approved by the Legislature in 2006 and went into effect July 1. Karamatsu, a lawyer and owner of an electronic commerce small business, voted in favor of the law.
In an interview yesterday, the Democrat representative said he had been at a work-related reception Monday night. Later his office released a statement saying he had been "socializing with friends."
After being arrested, Karamatsu spent the night in custody and a friend posted his $500 bail later in the morning.
"Basically, (I) just want to apologize sincerely to my family, my friends, my supporters and also my colleagues and constituents," the 32-year-old said after his court appearance. "I'm disappointed in myself and with the situation."
In a written statement, he said, "I made a serious error in judgment."
In District Court, he pleaded not guilty to the charge. He was dressed in a button-down Meadow Gold shirt, slacks and dress shoes.
He said he might fight the accusation he was excessively drunk, but he does admit to drinking and driving.
"I'll keep working hard, and keep working on policies," he said. "I think I need to take a couple steps back and look at my life and try and get myself to be more focused."
House Speaker Calvin Say said he was shocked by the news and that he spoke with Karamatsu briefly yesterday. He hoped to talk with him about the incident later "on a much more rational basis."
Say said he was with Karamatsu at a reception Monday night, but he declined to provide further details, including who else was in attendance and who sponsored the event. He said he last saw Karamatsu between 8:30 and 9 p.m., adding that "Jon was just a person who was not even intoxicated."
Say said it was premature to discuss Karamatsu's fate in the House before the matter is resolved legally. He said it would be up to the House to determine what disciplinary action, if any, to take.
"I've always supported Representative Karamatsu as a very, very hard-working young man for the state of Hawaii and his constituents," said Say (D, St. Louis Heights-Wilhelmina Rise-Palolo Valley). "On a social level, Jon and I meet a lot of times because I really feel and trust that he's a future leader of the state of Hawaii."
House Minority Leader Lynn Finnegan (R, Mapunapuna-Foster Village) said time will tell how the incident affects Karamatsu's working relationships with colleagues.
"Everything is about public perception in cases like these," Finnegan said. "I do know that there's probably going to be concerns coming from the community."
As far as any disciplinary action, "We have a process here in the state House and I guess we'll just have to see where that process leads us," she said.
Pleading not guilty at an initial court appearance is a routine procedure, said Victor Bakke, a defense attorney at the Law Office of Paul Cunney. Cunney's firm deals with more than 2,500 driving under the influence cases a year.
"It's pretty routine for people to plead not guilty at that point in time," Bakke said. "Had he tried to plead guilty, the judge will often try to talk you out of it until you speak with legal counsel."
Karamatsu had been stopped three times in the past for traffic violations. In 1997, he was in a minor traffic accident and was fined for not having an updated safety check.
In 2002, court records showed Karamatsu was fined $77 for turning right at a corner where right turns on red lights are prohibited.
And in December , Karamatsu was cited for speeding and paid a $137 fine.
Because this is his first alleged DUI, if convicted, Karamatsu could face as many as five days in prison, three days of community service and as much as a $1,000 fine.
Karamatsu graduated from the Gonzaga University law school in 2001. He has served as a legislative aide to Sen. Carol Fukunaga and Rep. K. Mark Takai. He successfully ran for the state House in 2002. The Democrat was re-elected in 2004 and 2006.
Star-Bulletin writer B.J. Reyes contributed to this report.