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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Josh Marcus

Judge frets over ‘losing entire career’ after cops stopped her on drunk-driving suspicion amid high-profile murder case


Harris County Judge Kelli Johnson, whose sudden multi-week absence from the bench prompted concern and confusion, was pulled over as cops suspected her of drunk driving during a high-profile murder trial.

New recordings from that night show how the judge pleaded with cops and told them she “could lose my entire career.”

Harris County Kelli Johnson was in a traffic stop on April 12 during a high-profile murder trial (Facebook)

The April 12 stop - during the murder trial and before she went missing - came after officers observed her recklessly driving, including driving on the wrong side of the road, eating, looking at her phone, speeding and making an unsafe lane change, according to Harris County Sheriff’s Office body camera footage obtained by ABC13.

Some of the audio from the 8 pm stop couldn’t be heard. But, the report noted it was clear when Johnson reportedly said “I’m a judge” during the stop.

Judge Kelli Johnson was absent from court in Harris County, Texas, for over three weeks, prompting questions about her whereabouts and wellbeing. New details show she was pulled over for suspicion of DUI during a high-profile murder trial. (Justex/ District Courts of Harris County)

In the footage, the officers can be heard discussing how they believe they could alcohol, and the official appears to mention her position in the hopes of avoiding punishment, according to ABC13.

A second officer arrived, and they decided to put the judge through a field sobriety test.

“If I do this test and you don’t think I do well, I lose my career and this,” the judge asked 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.”

A supervising officer, Sergeant Collin McHugh, then steps in.

“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 says.

"I could lose my entire career," Johnson repeats.

"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 says

"I’m not using a position," Johnson replies.

The judge also claimed she hadn’t been drinking but rather had had a long week after taking part in the trial of Brian Coulter, a man found guilty of beating his girlfriend’s 8-year-old son to death in 2020.

The officers ultimately concluded that Johnson hadn’t shown enough signs of impairment in a field sobriety test to warrant an arrest, and let her off with a warning for driving 77 mph in a 65 mph zone.

“She’s probably been drinking, just not the level of,” a deputy said in the footage.

Johnson went missing from the bench for weeks after the high-profile trial. (Kelli Johnson/Facebook)

The Independent has contacted Johnson for comment.

Sheriff’s officials defended their actions.

"Deputies use discretion with the issuance of citations," a sheriff’s department official told ABC13. "If there are not enough signs to indicate impairment, then an arrest would not be an appropriate course of action."

The judge was previously in the news for taking a sudden, multi-week absence from the 178th Criminal District Court.

Anonymous court staff described concerns about the judge’s mental wellbeing, describing her as manic and “a danger to herself and to the community."

A Houston Police Department report, meanwhile, described a May 4 visit to her home citing “disturbance/CIT,” the latter an abbreviation for crisis intervention.

Clay Johnson, the judge’s brother, said speculation about the absence was unfounded.

“She’s not missing, she’s on medical leave,” he told The Daily Beast. “She’s in touch with the family, and everything is fine… and that’s about all I can say.”

Johnson’s absence from the courtroom came weeks after presiding over the Coulter trial.

“This is probably one of the most horrific sets of facts that I have ever had to witness, to listen to and to imagine,” the judge said during the trial.

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