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Judge stopped for reckless driving, suspected of drinking but given warning, according to recording

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) — Before Harris County District Court Judge Kelli Johnson took at least a month off from work for personal matters following a crisis intervention call at her house, she was pulled over for multiple traffic violations and then volunteered to do a field sobriety test.

ABC13 obtained a body-worn camera video of the encounter through an open records request.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office explained that most of the video is black due to an “obstruction,” but the audio is clear.

Sgt. Colin McHugh made the initial stop.

Johnson: “I’m a judge.”

McHugh: “You’re a judge?”

Johnson: “A criminal district judge. Yes.”

The stop happened at about 8 p.m. on April 12, three days before Johnson found Brian Coulter guilty of murdering his girlfriend’s son, whose body was left to rot for a year. She mentioned the case twice during the 45-minute-long encounter and asked a second deputy, who arrived, to give her the Standard Field Sobriety Test (SFST) for a supervisor.

“If I do this test and you don’t think I do well, I lose my career and this,” she appealed to Deputy Sandy Mace. “I mean, can you call, like, a witness? Can we call Ben Katrib? I’ll call Sidney Miller. Sheriff (Ed) Gonzalez. This is a huge deal for me.”

McHugh went back to Johnson’s vehicle when Mace told him she requested a supervisor.

“Ma’am, here’s the thing. I am her supervisor, OK? She is asking you to exit the car so she can administer her SFST to you. Everything we do is recorded on that camera. This body camera. Everything here. We are not calling Lt. Katrib, and we are not calling Sheriff Gonzalez. This is an investigation into an impaired driver,” McHugh said.

“I could lose my entire career,” Johnson responded.

“And here’s the thing, your honor, I could lose my entire career if I let you use your position of you being a judge to do this,” McHugh said.

“I’m not using a position,” Johnson replied.

McHugh explained in the recording that he had stopped her for multiple traffic violations. He said he witnessed her driving on the wrong side of the road on Jackrabbit Road near U.S. 290, was distracted because she was eating and looking at her phone, was speeding, and made more than one unsafe lane change. McHugh then told her he smelled alcohol.

Johnson, who did not respond to an ABC13 request for comment, said she had not been drinking but rather had a long week because of the harrowing trial.

Last month, ABC13 reported that Johnson took a leave of absence from the bench in the 178th due to “personal matters.” A Houston police report from May 4 also revealed an incident involving a crisis intervention team at her home.

People who work at the courthouse, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said they had been concerned recently about her behavior. Johnson, who was elected in 2017, is well-liked.

The night of the traffic stop, the deputies agreed she failed a couple of clues, but it was not enough to warrant an arrest. She was given a warning for speeding, 77 mph in a 65-mph zone, and released.

“She’s probably been drinking, just not the level of,” the deputy said on the recording.

“She’s lucky she got off with a warning, considering the multiple traffic violations,” retired HPD Capt. Greg Fremin, who has seen the video, told ABC13 Thursday night.

HCSO said there is no evidence of any policy violations.

“Deputies use discretion with the issuance of citations,” Senior Deputy Thomas Gilliland said in an email. “A total of 64% of HCSO traffic stops result in either a written or verbal warning. The standardized field sobriety test (SFST) is a nationally recognized examination used to establish probable cause to assess for impairment. If there are not enough signs to indicate impairment, then an arrest would not be an appropriate course of action.”