By DAVID KLEPPER, Associated Press
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ A leading Rhode Island lawmaker charged with marijuana possession and drunk driving in Connecticut said Tuesday that police targeted him because he is a legislator.
House Minority Leader Robert Watson was arrested Friday after he was stopped at a police checkpoint in East Haven, Conn. Watson addressed the charges Tuesday on the House floor. He told lawmakers that police adopted a more aggressive attitude once they saw a legislative ID in his wallet.
`It seemed from that moment on the whole dynamic changed,” said Watson, R-East Greenwich. “I was immediately told that I would have to submit to a field sobriety test.”
East Haven Police Sgt. Gary DePalma, who was working the police checkpoint Friday, said Watson’s claim that he was targeted because he is a lawmaker is “ridiculous.”
“We interviewed hundreds of people,” DePalma told The Associated Press. “I’m sure we talked to lawyers, doctors, carpenters. We don’t care what you do.”
Watson said he uses marijuana to treat recurring pain from a severe bout of pancreatitis that hospitalized him last fall, but he insisted that he hadn’t smoked any the day of the arrest.
The veteran legislator apologized to citizens and lawmakers for creating a distraction as the General Assembly struggles to resolve the state’s fiscal crisis.
Watson failed field sobriety tests and smelled of marijuana and alcohol, according to the police report on the incident.
The officer who detained Watson reported that he slurred his words, had bloodshot eyes and showed difficulty keeping his balance. Police found a small bag of what they believed to be marijuana and a pipe in Watson’s pocket.
Watson faces a May 11 hearing on charges of drunk driving and possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. He said he will fight the drunk driving allegations and the officer’s depiction of him.
“I wish there had been cameras there. I wish it wasn’t just my word against the police,” Watson said. “I dispute the representations, the caricature that is depicted in the police report.”
Watson was in Connecticut to help a friend move and was returning from dinner when he was stopped. He said he had consumed “several” drinks but wasn’t drunk. An alcohol breath test performed at the police station determined that Watson’s blood-alcohol level was 0.05, below the state’s 0.08 limit.
Watson said he had a small supply of pot with him Friday in case he experienced a recurrence of his pancreatic illness.
He said the illness put him in a coma for several days last fall and caused pain that he likened to a gunshot. He turned to marijuana after other pain medications gave him an allergic reaction, Watson said.
Rhode Island has a medical marijuana law, but Watson never sought a marijuana prescription because he wanted to keep his use private.
Watson said he would work to regain the trust of lawmakers and voters.
“I’m human,” he said. “I’ll hold my head up. The people of Rhode Island are a forgiving community.”
Earlier in the day, House Republicans unanimously voted to retain Watson as their leader, a position he has held since 1998.
Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, said his faith in Watson’s leadership isn’t tarnished by the incident. But he is concerned about its impact on the legislative session.
“I’m worried it’s going to be a distraction,” he said. “Any time something sensational like this happens, it has that potential.”
House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, said it’s up to lawmakers to move on. “It’s a distraction only if we let it become one,” he said.
Two weeks ago, Watson called on lawmakers to focus “like a laser beam” on the state’s budget and its projected $331 million deficit. He said lawmakers had become distracted by debate surrounding a bill giving gay couples the right to marry.
Now Watson worries that he himself is the distraction.
“The irony is not lost on me that that laser beam is now focused on me,” he said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)