Yavapai County judge accused of extreme DUI takes plea deal

Judge Cele Hancock's blood alcohol at the time was nearly three times the legal limit, but some in the community have questioned the deal.
Published: May. 26, 2023 at 9:51 PM MST|Updated: May. 26, 2023 at 9:55 PM MST
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PRESCOTT, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Cele Hancock took a plea deal Friday, pleading guilty to the lowest level DUI charge. Hancock was stopped by Prescott Police back in March and charged with extreme DUI. Her blood alcohol at the time was nearly three times the legal limit. Some in the community questioned the deal.

Hancock, her attorney and the city prosecutor all appeared in court by telephone. Judge Ronald Ramsey, who presided over the case, said he agreed because Hancock’s address and phone number had been circulated. In addition, the family court judge had received threats and had concerns for her safety.

In police body camera video, an officer pulls Hancock over for a traffic stop. “We got some reports that you were inside Safeway, and you were stumbling, and you got back in your vehicle,” the officer explained. “Have you been drinking today?” the officer asked. “No,” Hancock responded. “You haven’t been drinking today?” the officer repeats. “Oh no,” she said.

Hancock changed her story five minutes later, admitting to drinking and driving. “Couple of hours ago,” Hancock said. “How much did you drink?” the officer asked. “Couple of glasses of wine,” she responded.

She failed a field sobriety test, then told the officers who she was. “I just feel bad; I just told that one; I’m a judge here. I’m just a person like anyone else,” Hancock said. She was given three different breathalyzer tests and had her blood drawn. Hancock was charged with extreme DUI. According to the police report, her blood alcohol that Sunday afternoon was 0.219.

Arizona’s Family Investigates spoke with over two dozen people who appeared before Judge Cele Hancock in family court, accusing her of acting inappropriately.

In court Friday, Hancock’s attorney provided an account of what happened. “While operating that motor vehicle, she prior to had consumed an intoxicating beverage, and that intoxicated beverage did impair her ability to operate the vehicle,” C. Kenneth Ray, Hancock’s attorney, said.

“DUI operating or in control of a vehicle with a .08 or more blood alcohol within two hours of driving a class 1 misdemeanor. What is your plea?” Judge Ramsey said. “Guilty, sir,” Hancock replied. That lesser charge means Hancock will spend just a day behind bars and pay a fine of $1,650.

Arizona’s Family Investigates spoke with defense attorney Russ Richelsoph for perspective. He’s not affiliated with the case. “DUI cases most of them end entering a plea agreement of some kind,” Richelsoph said.

Arizona’s Family Investigates asked Richelsoph what the community should make of this development. “I think it’s important to note that the judge, the police officers did cite her for DUI rather than letting her go,” he explained.

Since her arrest, Arizona’s Family Investigates has spoken with more than two dozen people who’ve gone before Judge Hancock and said she’s been inappropriate on the bench. Some of them were in court for the plea deal. “She should have own up and admitted she was in the wrong and accepted guilty to all the charges. She’s not different from anybody else,” Holly Dennison said. She appeared before Judge Hancock.

“That’s not the way the law should be here. That’s not justice,” Emma Thomas said. She had a family member appear before Hancock. “She’s skating on this, and it’s not right,” she continued.

Since her arrest, Hancock’s 200+ cases have been re-assigned. The Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct is investigating the case. Judge Hancock remains on non-judicial duty. As far as Arizona’s Family Investigates could determine, she continues to collect her $164,000 yearly salary. “My fear is she’s going to return to the bench,” Fredrick Lembach said. He appeared before Hancock in court.

In court, we learned Judge Hancock is undergoing rehab. They didn’t discuss the specifics of that. Ray moved to have the case sealed before the hearing. The judge agreed to that, explaining in court that Hancock was concerned for her safety. However, he unsealed it after the plea deal was final.

Arizona’s Family Investigates contacted the City Prosecutor’s Office for comment, but haven’t received a response. They negotiated and ultimately agreed to the plea deal.

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