Leave Michael Phelps Aloneby Doug Mataconis
It looks like prosecutors in South Carolina are looking to charge Michael Phelps in connection with the bong-smoking photograph:
COLUMBIA, 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.