WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
Lydia Dempsey Wardell, known for her "hard-nosed" attitude in drunken-driving cases, now faces the charge herself.
TAMPA - A top Pinellas prosecutor known for aggressively pursuing DUI cases was charged with driving under the influence Wednesday night near her Tampa home.
Lydia Dempsey Wardell, 37, one of two misdemeanor court supervisors for Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, was arrested by Tampa police who said she had a blood-alcohol level of 0.23 percent, nearly three times the level at which Florida law presumes someone is unable to drive safely.
At the time Wardell was stopped near Bayshore Boulevard, according to jail records, three children were in the car with her.
Wardell, who could not be reached for comment, was released on $500 bail at 4 a.m. Thursday, more than eight hours after her arrest.
"She made a mistake," said Bruce Bartlett, McCabe's chief assistant. "She's aware of that. She's extremely remorseful about her conduct and knows it's not acceptable and is ready to pay the consequences. Nobody will make excuses for her. She's ashamed and embarrassed."
Bartlett said he could not say how the arrest will affect Wardell's job or whether it will lead to her termination. He said the decision is up to McCabe, who could not be reached for comment.
"I can tell you there will be consequences for her," Bartlett said.
If Wardell is allowed to continue working in the office, Bartlett said, she would no longer be allowed to participate in DUI prosecutions.
Wardell rarely prosecutes DUIs as the frontline attorney in the courtroom. But as a supervisor, she frequently reviews DUI cases and often discusses them with defense attorneys seeking a reduction or dismissal because of evidence problems.
Before a charge is dismissed or reduced, a supervisor such as Wardell must approve.
In Pinellas, prosecutors including Wardell often charge DUI defendants with felony child neglect when someone drives under the influence with children in the car, as Wardell is accused of doing.
Wardell does not face that charge in Hillsborough, and it was not immediately clear whether Tampa police considered a more serious charge against Wardell.
"The irony of the situation is that she is a very hard-nosed prosecutor on these kind of cases," Bartlett said. "She is very reluctant to ever reduce charges or make any deal on a DUI. She's tough as nails and has a lot of enemies in defense lawyers because of her positions on these type of cases."
A copy of Wardell's arrest report could not be obtained Thursday because it was Veterans Day, so few details of the arrest were immediately available.
Bartlett, however, said he understood that two children, both Wardell's, were in the car, not the three mentioned in an online computer record.
Bartlett said Wardell was on her way to a ball field to pick up her son.
"It's the typical DUI," Bartlett said. "Someone runs two blocks from their home to do something and never thinks something is going to happen. And it does. ... Make no bones about it. Nobody in the office is happy about the situation."
Wardell, aside from her supervisory duties, prosecutes cases in felony court, including some of the county's highest-profile cases. She helped successfully prosecute Brandon Ware earlier this year for first-degree murder in the killing of an 86-year-old Largo man.