By Janene Scully
Noozhawk North County Editor
The Santa Ynez Valley Union High School principal accused of drunken driving has entered a no-contest plea to a misdemeanor charge in Santa Barbara County Superior Court.
Mark Swanitz, 51, entered the no-contest plea to misdemeanor driving with a blood-alcohol level more than 0.08 percent through his attorney, William Redell, on Feb. 13.
In separate punishment handed down by the school district, Swanitz agreed to use his arrest to help educate students and others about the dangers of drinking and driving, among several actions required due to his arrest.
For the purposes of court sentencing, Judge Gustavo Lavayen found Swanitz guilty beyond a reasonable doubt before handing down the punishment that included three years of informal probation and a suspended sentence of 60 days in county jail.
If Swanitz completes probation successfully, he won’t have to serve the time in jail.
Swanitz was arrested Oct. 21 after a non-injury collision caused by another driver making a left turn on Highway 246 between Solvang and Buellton, according to the California Highway Patrol.
Redell previously entered not-guilty pleas on Swanitz’s behalf for two misdemeanor charges — driving under the influence of alcohol and driving with a blood alcohol content of .08 or greater.
The criminal complaint listed his blood alcohol level at the time of the crash as 0.12.
Other terms of the deal include attending a three-month class, paying a $1,690 fine and not drinking alcohol for a year, Redell added.
Austin Ingalls represented the District Attorney’s Office for the case.
“The crime of driving with a .08 percent blood alcohol level occurs when someone makes the decision to get into a car and drive after consuming enough alcohol to have a blood alcohol level over the legal limit,” said Chief Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Gresser.
“As every defendant convicted of this crime is advised, being under the influence of alcohol impairs a person’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle, and it is extremely dangerous to human life for anyone to drive while under the influence of alcohol,” she added. “As such, our office is committed to enforcing this law.”
A misdemeanor count for driving while under the influence of alcohol was dismissed under the plea deal, which Redell said is typical for a defendant in a first-time DUI case.
“He just didn’t want to fight it anymore,” Redell said of his client’s decision to change his plea.
Redell said he believes Swanitz had a strong defense, noting the readings show his blood-alcohol level was rising and contends it likely was .08 at the time of crash.
Swanitz was en route to a fundraiser and had had a couple of beers, one of which he reportedly consumed quickly prior to heading to the event, Redell said.
It was Swanitz who called the California Highway Patrol to report the accident, Redell added.
Additionally, a CHP officer asked Swanitz to move his vehicle at the scene of the crash, the attorney added.
“I can tell you the requirements from the school were much more severe, and he’s adhering to that as well,” Redell said.
The principal has remained on the job, with district leaders saying they must ensure Swanitz’s due-process rights were not violated.
“Last fall, Mr. Swanitz made a very negatively impactful decision to drink and drive,” Superintendent Scott Cory said. “It is an indefensible and inexcusable decision. Educational leaders in particular should be held to a very high standard and model good behavior at all times, whether on or off the job.
“The SYVUHSD board of education knows Mr. Swanitz’ actions are in no way acceptable, and this incident sends exactly the opposite message we want to convey as a school district regarding drinking and driving,” Cory added.
As a result of his arrest, Swanitz has agreed to the following steps:
- Work with People Helping People to establish an appropriate community service audience (drug and alcohol related) for 40 hours of community service work.
- Donate 10 days of net pay to his school’s PTSA’s Sober Grad Committee.
- Meet with all senior students prior to Prom 2018 and share this incident with them as a cautionary advice against drinking and driving.
- Participate in 20 hours of a district-approved alcohol rehabilitation program to be paid for by Swanitz.
- Work with CHP to schedule the Every 15 Minutes program for the earliest possible date and work with them to include Swanitz’s story in the opening assembly.
- Remain open to using his experience as a teachable moment in other situations as they arise.
Swanitz has been principal since 2010 at the school, which he graduated from in 1985. He previously spent four years as principal at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta.