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February 13, 2009

Leave Michael Phelps Alone

by Doug Mataconis

It looks like prosecutors in South Carolina are looking to charge Michael Phelps in connection with the bong-smoking photograph:

phelps_516_0102_25518aCOLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Even if a South Carolina sheriff is successful in building a marijuana case against swimming superstar Michael Phelps, it might be hard to make the charges stick, defense attorneys say.

The case took a turn Thursday when lawyers for two people said their clients were among eight arrested last week and questioned at length about the November party near the University of South Carolina where Phelps was photographed smoking from a marijuana pipe. At the time, the men were renters at the house.

The effort to prosecute Phelps on what would be at most a minor drug charge seem extreme compared to similar cases, lawyers said, and have led some to question whether the sheriff is being overzealous because he’s dealing with a celebrity.

”The efforts that are being made here are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” said Jack Swerling, a defense attorney in South Carolina. ”I know Leon Lott, I know him to be an honorable guy. I’ve known him for 30 something years. But the efforts here are extraordinary on simple possession cases.”

Given that, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the prosecutor in question here has made a career out of being flamboyantly aggressive in pursing the War on (some) Drugs:

Lott has made fighting drug crimes a central plank of his career. He rose from patrol officer to captain of the narcotics division in the early 1990s and was well-known in the county for wearing stylish suits like the drug agents on ”Miami Vice” and driving a Porsche seized from a drug dealer. He was elected sheriff in 1996.

The attention that Lott is giving to this case seems disproportionate considering the relatively light sentence that Phelps would receive if he were charged and convicted of possession of marijuana:

A person who violates this subsection with respect to twenty- eight grams or one ounce or less of marijuana or ten grams or less of hashish is guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, must be imprisoned not more than thirty days or fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than two hundred dollars.

In other words, this is a relatively low-level misdemeanor.

So, why the attention from law enforcement ?

The answer, I think, is obvious. Arresting and convicting Phelps, even on this relatively minor charge, would be a big “get” for a prosecutor, particularly a politically ambitious prosecutor who has built his career on being some modern-day version of Don Johnson with a law degree. If Michael Phelps were just some guy from Baltimore who smoked marijuana while visiting the Palmetto State, this wouldn’t be happening.

That’s what’s wrong with the War on Drugs and proprietorial discretion.

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  • Pingback: The Liberty Papers »Blog Archive » Leave Michael Phelps Alone | Biography of Michael Phelps

  • Stephanie

    I cannot believe they are going after him. Just goes to show you that no one is immune anymore. Very sad. This could ruin him and there was no need for it. I hope they prosecute everyone at that party, (including) the a$$ who took the picture!
    HHmmm, wonder if the prosecutor is squeaky clean? Maybe someone should check him out.

  • http://www.sunflowerpipes.com SunflowerPipes

    So Michael Phelps is a guy who drinks at parties smokes a little gambles on high stakes games of beer pong and is the all time greatest Olympic medal winner he sounds like a pretty cool guy to me. Michael Phelps is an American Hero. He stood tall and made America proud at the Beijing Olympics. This is how he is treated. Michael Phelps did a tremendous amount of work to achive what he did. Who can forget the pride we felt with the each gold medal Phelps won in China, how can we as Americans forget all of those things and hang a man for smoking a glass water pipe at a college party. It is time that we as a country stand up for the rights of the individual, it’s time we stand together with our neighbors and take collective control of our destinies. Write any congressman or a senator; imagine the weight of millions of emails calling for a change in policy. Lets stop them from arresting college kids at parties in America

    SunflowerPipes.com

  • http://www.profatusveritas.com Dick Clark

    First, let me say that I agree with the general sentiment expressed here–that all the drug warriors harassing kids for smoking pot with an uber-Olympian like Phelps is despicable and outrageous.

    However, I think we are getting a little confused here. Sheriff Leon Lott is not the prosecutor. He also has no law degree, at least according to his very detailed bio here: http://www.rcsd.net/bio.html

    Thus, the statement “[a]rresting and convicting Phelps, even on this relatively minor charge, would be a big ‘get’ for a prosecutor, particularly a politically ambitious prosecutor who has built his career on being some modern-day version of Don Johnson with a law degree” isn’t really an accurate thing to say. From the linked article, we really don’t know anything about what the prosecutors are looking to do here, do we? We just know what the sociopath sheriff is doing.

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