Karen Velie, co-founder of and writer for the controversial CalCoastNews website, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence on Aug. 13. New Times learned about the arrest on Aug. 21, and sent an e-mail to Velie on Aug. 22 seeking comment as part of an information-gathering effort to determine how—and whether—to proceed with the information.
Shortly after that request, CalCoastNews’ Josh Friedman and Dan Blackburn published a story about the arrest—and its aftermath—on the website.
“Officer Josh Walsh placed Velie under arrest after her blood alcohol test showed a .06,” they wrote. “California’s drunk driving laws require an arrest if a driver has a .08 alcohol level.”
The accompanying photograph was of officer Walsh.
The story quoted a local lawyer and a doctor in Velie’s defense; both had attended a bridge class she finished teaching prior to the arrest and stated that she didn’t appear inebriated.
The writers then went on to link the incident to Velie’s recent reporting activities, attributing fallout to SLO County Supervisor Adam Hill and CAPSLO Homeless Services Director Dee Torres.
“The arrest and its aftermath appeared to be directly connected to the news agency’s recent reporting on county homeless issues,” the story reads.
In an appearance later that afternoon on local talk radio host Dave Congalton’s KVEC show, Velie admitted to drinking a couple glasses of wine over a three-hour period before the arrest and to not doing well on the physical tests administered to determine a DUI.
Velie and writer Friedman commented that the arrest—and its subsequent back-channel reporting to local movers and shakers—came in the midst of “a number of attacks” made on the website by its critics.
Velie stated, “[San Luis Obispo Police Chief Stephen] Gesell has said publically I’m out to get him.”
Congalton later asked whether she believed she was targeted.
“I believe I was arrested because of who I am,” Velie replied.
Congalton later said: “Someone is clearly trying to embarrass Karen in the eyes of the local opinion makers.”
In the following 24 hours, people began criticizing officer Walsh in CalCoastNews’ comments section.
“JordanJ” posted: “This arrest was done with clear malice. Not everything has come out yet, check this cops phone and see who he called over the next 12 hours. I know somebody he called and why he called them. What a vindictive, trouble making a-hole.”
Another poster, “Jorge Estrada,” wrote: “Are the city cops going to arrest the masses on a Saturday evening or just wrongfully humiliate Ms Velie out of retaliation for her job of being the messenger?”
New Times obtained a city memorandum on Aug. 23, issued in response to Velie’s appearance on Congalton’s show and requests to the department for more information about the incident. The memo, from Chief Gesell via City Manager Katie Lichtig, denies Velie’s suspicions.
“Since the arrest Ms. Velie and others have made public statements in speech and print claiming she was targeted due to her position as a reporter for the Cal Coast News,” the memo reads. “Those statements are false and the Police Department is releasing the following information in order to provide accurate factual background as to the events leading to Ms. Velie’s arrest.”
The memo states that Velie, while making a left-hand turn, merged into Walsh’s lane, prompting him to brake—and then initiate a traffic stop.
“Prior to the traffic stop, Officer Walsh had no knowledge of the driver’s identity and the white pickup driven by Ms. Velie was not registered in her name,” it reads.
“During Officer Walsh’s contact with Ms. Velie, he observed objective indications of alcohol intoxication, including slurred speech, bloodshot and watery eyes and an odor of alcoholic beverage consumption, which led him to believe she was driving impaired,” it continues. “Based on physical observations and the unsafe driving maneuver that nearly resulted in a collision with the officer’s vehicle, Officer Walsh determined further DUI investigation was appropriate. The investigation included a series of standardized questions and physical tests to evaluate Ms. Velie’s level of comprehension, balance and coordination to help evaluate her level of impairment. Based on Ms. Velie’s answers to questions and her poor performance on the field tests, Ofc. Walsh concluded Ms. Velie was driving while impaired.”
The memo goes on to state that Velie voluntarily elected to take a breath test—though not one that could be used as evidence. Her reported blood alcohol content results: .079 at the scene of the stop. Once in custody, she took the test again—this time on an evidentiary machine—reportedly blowing a .07, then a .06.
The memo indicates Velie was first stopped at approximately 9:45 p.m. and was administered the last legal breath test at 10:38 p.m.
Gesell also explained that Officer Walsh reasonably believed that the evidence he observed supported a conclusion that Velie was impaired and that her continued operation of the vehicle could result in a public safety concern.
“Based on all information known to SLOPD at this time, Officer Walsh’s actions were entirely appropriate and consistent with procedure where a driver is under the influence of alcohol and has demonstrated impairment while driving,” he concluded. “To allow an obviously impaired driver to continue to operate a vehicle would have been both unsafe and irresponsible. It has been the standard protocol for SLOPD to arrest and book into county jail individuals under the circumstances present here.”