A White County jury cleared Helen’s fire chief of any wrongdoing in a 2008 traffic incident that led to his arrest.
The Superior Court jury of six found Fire Chief Bert Smith not guilty of reckless driving, failure to obey a person directing traffic and failure to use due regard in operating an emergency vehicle.
Smith was responding to an emergency call of a man suffering a heart attack Jan. 26, 2008, when he encountered a safety checkpoint at the corner of Ga. 75 and Ga. 17 south of Helen. White County sheriff’s deputies and a Georgia State Patrol trooper were stopping people at the intersection to check for driver’s licenses and signs of impairment.
Smith, driving a Toyota Tundra truck equipped with lights and a siren, drove through the intersection with lights flashing and proceeded to the emergency.
Two days later, he was told to report to the White County Detention Center for booking. Sheriff Neal Walden said the fire chief did not give due regard to the safety of people who closed the intersection.
Smith, 48, was arrested and spent about four hours in jail before bonding out.
Smith said he believed the law allowed emergency vehicles to go through stop signs or red traffic lights as long as they are slow enough for safe operation. Smith estimated he was going about 25 mph when he went through the checkpoint.
This week a jury sided with Smith, taking about 45 minutes to reach a not guilty verdict after hearing testimony and arguments over two days.
"Obviously I’m very pleased with the decision," said Smith, who has been a fire department employee for the past 12 years and believed a conviction would have jeopardized his job. "The jury did what it was supposed to do — it weighed the facts properly."
Smith said the case came down to an interpretation of the law.
"I would not have fought this all this time if I felt I had screwed up," Smith said. "I feel like I showed due regard when I reached the intersection. I sounded an audible alarm; I did not endanger anybody’s life or property.
"In all honesty, I think in January of 2008, this whole situation could have been handled differently."
Walden was not available for comment Wednesday.
Smith acknowledged that the incident initially put a strain on relations between the White County Sheriff’s Office and the Helen Fire Department, but over time "the friendships seems to be mended."
"Long term, I don’t think it’s caused any hard feelings," Smith said.