VERO BEACH — St. Lucie County Judge Kathryn Nelson pleaded no contest to driving while intoxicated on the Merrill Barber Bridge during October, and on Monday a judge sentenced her to a year of probation, a $500 fine, DUI school and 50 hours of community service.
She had contested the charges, and the case was to go to trial, but her defense attorney and prosecutors worked out a plea deal. Under it, prosecutors dismissed a charge of resisting a police officer.
"I regret that I must appear as an accused citizen in county court today," Nelson, 52, said in a prepared statement. "I take full responsibility for my actions that brought me here."
Nelson continues to be a judge. The state's Judicial Qualifications Commission may review her status because of the driving offense, court officials said.
On Monday she went before Brevard County Judge Kelly McKibben who the Florida Supreme Court appointed to the case to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest. An assistant state attorney from Orlando prosecuted Nelson's DUI case because she had previously worked for State Attorney Bruce Colton.
McKibben ruled that Nelson is guilty of DUI and suspended the judge's driver's license for six months.
"This seems fair to me," said Vero Beach Interim Police Chief David Currey. "We did the right thing that night (of the arrest)."
In her prepared statement, Nelson said she had two glasses of wine, and, "while I do not believe that I was impaired by alcohol or any other substance" she also was "very upset over a family matter and I was in no condition to drive."
Nelson's attorney Michael Kessler said a waitress who waited on Nelson and her sister before the accident corroborated that Nelson had two glasses of wine.
At about 5:50 p.m. on Oct. 25 a motorist called Vero Beach police, saying a car was weaving back and forth and struck a bridge guard rail near Indian River Boulevard in Vero Beach.
According to police reports, the driver was Nelson and she refused to get out of the car and initially blamed the accident on using a cellphone. She said she was a judge in St. Lucie County and wouldn't do field sobriety exercises. Police were forced to pry both her hands off the steering wheel to remove her from the car, according to a police report.
She continued to scream and pull away as she was restrained and put in handcuffs.
Police said her breath smelled of alcohol and she appeared to have vomit on her skirt. Nelson refused to undergo testing for alcohol impairment, according to court records.
"I recognize now that I should not have driven that afternoon," she said in the statement. "Our justice system would fail if we could not count on our judge to exemplify the highest standards."
She added that, "I believe that it is in my best interest and the best interest of the community I serve, that I bring this matter to a close and accept the punishment that I have earned by my conduct."