Judge dismisses case against Haines man with epilepsy who drove parade float

A man in  a trump mask holds a sign up through the window of the front half of a blue sedan. The sign says "Uncle Sam I am 1/2 off"
Paul Nelson drives half a Chevrolet Celebrity during the Fourth of July parade in Haines. (Photo Courtesy of Tom Ganner)

A Haines man was awarded a prize in the town’s Fourth of July parade when he donned a Donald Trump mask and drove a car that had been cut in half. A week later, local police cited the man, who has a history of seizures, for driving without a license. A local judge dismissed the case on Monday.

The Haines Chamber of Commerce adapted their annual Fourth of July parade to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Instead of parading down Main Street, the marching band, the dancers, the fire truck, and the floats were stationed at the parking lot of the Southeast Alaska State Fairgrounds. Spectators could drive through and take in the spectacle from their cars. 

Paul Nelson owns Big Foot Auto in Haines. He and his employees built a unique float for the occasion.

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“It was a Chevrolet Celebrity [with] front wheel drive,” Nelson said. “We were able to cut the rear half of the car off and put caster wheels under the rear of the car, which now was right behind the driver’s seat.”

Nelson’s employees towed the car, or what was left of it, to the fairgrounds. They got set up in their designated area behind the chalked out lane where the cars would pass by. When the parade started, Nelson got behind the wheel in a Donald Trump mask and began driving. The car still worked, but the swiveling wheels in the back caused some steering quirks.

“You get it going five miles an hour or so and hit the brakes—there was no weight in the rear so it would tip right up on the front bumper,” Nelson said. “With no rear wheels, when you turned the steering wheel hard left or right the car would spin around in a circle the size of the car itself.”

Nelson said he won first prize for his float, but nine days after the parade he was cited for driving without a license. A little over a year ago the state canceled Nelson’s driver’s license after he had a seizure while driving. 

He said he didn’t break the law by driving the modified vehicle at the fairgrounds because he was on private property.

“I don’t have a driver’s license, but I saw that it was legal to drive an off-road vehicle on private property without a driver’s license. So I thought since they’re doing a reverse parade and I had an idea for a float that couldn’t be driven on the highway that it would work perfectly,” Nelson said.

At his first court appearance, Nelson moved to dismiss the citation, referencing a previous case in Alaska where charges were dropped against a man who drove without a license in a supermarket parking lot. 

At a hearing on Monday, Assistant District Attorney Dara Gibson dropped the charge for driving without a license and attempted to introduce new charges for reckless driving. Judge Linn Asper dismissed the case because Nelson had not been served the new charges. Asper said the District Attorney’s office would have to issue a new summons to Nelson if it wanted to proceed. 

Nelson disputes the reckless driving charges as well. 

“If I was negligent driving or reckless driving during the parade, why didn’t they stop me? Why did they let me go on through the entire parade?”

Nelson has repeatedly called for cuts to the police department’s budget during meetings of the Haines Borough Assembly. He claims that the charges against him are a form of harassment for speaking out. 

Haines Police Chief Heath Scott declined to comment on the specifics of the case but said he is concerned that Nelson’s medical condition prevents him from driving safely and caused a public safety risk.

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