Dist. 57 school bus driver pleads guilty to driving drunk
Betty Burden, the former Mount Prospect Elementary District 57 bus driver charged with aggravated DUI after police say she drove schoolchildren while intoxicated last March, pleaded guilty to the charge today in a Rolling Meadows courtroom.
Burden entered a blind plea, which means prosecutors and defense attorney Ernie Blomquist were unable to come to an agreement for sentencing.
Blomquist indicated he will request probation, the minimum for the class 4 felony, when Cook County Circuit Court Judge John Scotillo sentences the Mount Prospect woman on Jan. 26. The maximum sentence is three years in prison.
Blomquist said he intends to introduce considerable mitigating evidence in his client's favor, including what he describes as Burden's exemplary background and employment history. Prosecutors confirmed that Burden has no criminal background and no prior DUI arrests.
Blomquist also cited what he called his client's dire personal circumstances, which include Burden acting as sole caregiver for her ailing mother, as the mitigating factors he will introduce at sentencing. A visibly distraught Burden left the courtroom without comment.
Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Maria McCarthy said Burden had a blood-alcohol content of .226 following her arrest. Zero-tolerance laws make it illegal for school bus drivers to have any alcohol in their blood. Police said Burden admitted drinking vodka and orange juice at lunch on March 9, 2010. School officials said no alcohol was found on her bus.
At previous hearings, witnesses testified that one of Burden's co-workers informed their supervisor, former Transportation Director Vince Ramirez, that she smelled alcohol on Burden's breath earlier that afternoon. Ramirez made contact with Burden and boarded her bus about 3:45 p.m., 10 minutes after she began her route with students from Lions Park Elementary School, McCarthy said. A teacher at the school indicated she saw 30 children under age 18 enter Burden's bus at about 3:35 p.m. March 9, McCarthy said.
At a previous hearing, witnesses testified that Ramirez indicated he did not notice her driving erratically, nor did he notice an odor of alcohol on her breath. However, Ramirez did contact police, who intercepted Burden as she returned the bus to the "barn." Police officers also said they did not notice any driving violations.
District 57 later fired both Ramirez and Burden, who police say drove children that afternoon on routes that included Lincoln Junior High School and Westbrook Elementary School in addition to Lions Park.
District 57 Superintendent Dr. Elaine Aumiller declined to comment on Wednesday's proceedings but did say that the district harbored "no ill will" toward Burden.
"It was an unfortunate situation," Aumiller said.
In October, Scotillo denied Blomquist's motion to quash his client's arrest and suppress evidence. Scotillo ruled that authorities did not violate Burden's 14th Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure when they arrested her based on information they received from her supervisor via the co-worker.