Kansas senator makes plea deal in DUI case after driving wrong direction on I-70

GOP’s Suellentrop avoids felony conviction, agrees to serve 48 hours in jail

By: and - October 25, 2021 11:03 am
Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, agreed to a plea bargain that led to guilty verdicts for driving under the influence and for reckless driving. He was arrested in March for driving the wrong direction on Interstate 70 at speeds approaching 100 mph. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, agreed to a plea bargain that led to guilty verdicts for driving under the influence and for reckless driving. He was arrested in March for driving the wrong direction on Interstate 70 at speeds approaching 100 mph. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Sen. Gene Suellentrop entered a no contest plea to two misdemeanor charges Monday that stemmed from an incident in March in which he drove for miles in the wrong direction on Interstate 70 before being stopped by a Kansas Highway Patrol officer.

Suellentrop, a Wichita Republican who was forced out of his role as the Kansas Senate’s majority leader following his arrest, agreed to a deal that avoided conviction on a felony charge, including the pending count of eluding police. The plea agreement with prosecutors led Judge Jason Geier to find Suellentrop guilty of driving under the influence and of reckless driving.

Suellentrop acknowledged the evidence would prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. According to the KHP officer’s charging affidavit, he was driving at speeds approaching 100 mph while fleeing through Topeka, and multiple vehicles swerved to avoid head-on collisions. When he was finally stopped, he reeked of alcohol and struggled to speak.

“There are many lessons to be learned in circumstances such as these, and I can assure you I’ve learned my share,” Suellentrop told the court before sentencing. “I take full responsibility for my actions, and I apologize for my actions. You will not see me in this court or any other court of law on any similar infractions whatsoever.”

Suellentrop is required by state law to serve 48 hours in the Shawnee County Jail. His incarceration is set to begin at noon Nov. 18.

The judge suspended a six-month sentence for the DUI conviction and 90 days for reckless driving and ordered Suellentrop to serve one year of probation. Suellentrop also has to participate in eight therapy sessions and take a substance abuse class. Eventually, he will be eligible to have the convictions expunged from his record, the judge said.

Although the judge has the authority to reject the terms of a plea deal, Geier said it was the court’s policy to accept any agreement reached between the prosecutor’s office and a defense attorney.

“I know this case has garnered a lot of attention — media attention and attention from the public,” Geier said. “I’m not allowed ethically to consider any of those outside influences.”

After taken into custody March 16, Suellentrop was verbally abusive to law enforcement officers attempting to test his blood alcohol level. He called the arresting officer a “donut boy,” the officer wrote in his report. Suellentrop bragged that he could beat the officer in a fight because he played sports competitively in high school.”

He refused to voluntarily take a breath test, and a search warrant had to be obtained to compel the senator to give a blood sample for testing. That produced a reading of 0.17%, far above the legal limit of 0.08% in Kansas to legally operate a vehicle.

Suellentrop’s attorney, Tom Lemon, told the court he had produced a transcript from video of Suellentrop’s arrest. The transcript doesn’t include “salacious” language that got people’s attention. The attorney didn’t specify which words he was referring to.

“He was, frankly, what I would expect for a 69-year-old intoxicated man dealing with a younger trooper,” Lemon said.

Lemon said his client had drunk too much and wasn’t aware he was being followed by police.

“As he stands here in front of you, he’s a 69-year-old man who doesn’t have any criminal history,” Lemon said. “I mean, he’s a parent, he’s a husband, he’s a father, he’s a grandfather, he’s a business owner. All other aspects of his life are in good shape. But it was a very, very, bad mistake that he made.”

“I say all these things not as an excuse or to divert anything,” the attorney continued, “but for mitigation purposes, judge. Because of the place that he holds, he’s not down the hall in the DUI docket today with every other DUI case.”

Wichita residents Jane Byrnes and Michael McCorkle drove to Topeka Monday to attend Sen. Gene Suellentrop’s hearing. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Wichita residents Jane Byrnes and Michael McCorkle attended the hearing and were disappointed to see Suellentrop evade felony conviction.

“A felony is considerably different than this little tap on the arm,” Byrnes said.

McCorkle said Suellentrop’s district deserves better representation. McCorkle ran against the incumbent GOP senator as the Democratic nominee for the district in 2020. Suellentrop won the race with 26,296 votes to McCorkle’s 13,143.

“We were hoping to witness equal justice here today, what anybody else would have gotten,” McCorkle said.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of McCorkle’s name and to note his candidacy in 2020.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He is a lifelong Kansan.

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