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The Fame and Misfortune Of Celebrity: Why Paris Hilton Does Not Belong Behind Bars


Monday, Jun. 11, 2007

Celebrities expect their fame to open doors. They just don't expect those doors to be made of metal bars.

Certainly, Paris Hilton did not expect to land behind bars when she faced a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge last month on a minor - yes, minor -- probation violation stemming from her recent reckless driving conviction.

Yet, jail is precisely what she got. And lots of it, relatively speaking - as I can vouch as a longtime Southern California criminal defense attorney.

Judge Michael Sauer sentenced Hilton to forty-five days in custody. To put it in perspective, that's 720 times longer than it takes the Space Shuttle to orbit Earth; five days longer than the average gestation period of the grey squirrel; and forty-five days more than most other defendants would have received under similar circumstances. But who's counting.

On June 3, Hilton snuck off to jail to begin serving her sentence.

Two days later, she was out; she'd been sent home by the Los Angeles County Sheriff to serve the balance of her time under house arrest.

Her parting gift: a new, electronic monitoring ankle bracelet. Not exactly Tiffany, but Paris was pleased to receive it.

It may as well have been a bad dream. Two days after that, she was back behind bars.

On Friday, having caught wind of the Sheriff's somewhat unorthodox maneuver, Judge Sauer ordered Hilton back to court, and then back to jail.

In this column, I will discuss why Paris' jail sentence was too harsh, and why courts should consider alternative sentences when it comes to punishing the rich and famous.

The Background of the Case: The Offense and the Charges

The relevant facts here began back in September 2006, when Hilton was pulled over and arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, a misdemeanor, on her way home from shooting a music video. At the time, Hilton's blood-alcohol level was a .08 -- the bare minimum needed to sustain a conviction for DUI in California.

In January, Paris pled "no contest" to the lesser charge of reckless driving. As is customary in cases such as this, Hilton's license was suspended by the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Since this was Hilton's first offense, her license should have been suspended for a period of four months - that is, until sometime in mid-May.

Sometime after Paris's plea in January, but before her license suspension was lifted, Paris did the unthinkable: She drove. (Cue the spooky, horror-film music now).

As a result, prosecutors - as they are wont to do in cases involving celebrities - decided the world would be a much better place if the nice citizens of Los Angeles County were forced to spend their hard-earned tax dollars on keeping this billion-heiress in bologna sandwiches and warm milk for forty-five whole days.

So, they charged Hilton with violating her probation, and requested the court sentence her to six-and-a-half-weeks in the slammer.

The 45-Day Sentence - and Why It Was Unjust

Hilton's counsel, Howard Weitzman -- likely realizing the 45-day incarceration request was impractical and, well, unheard of in the history of similar offenses -- all but scoffed at it.

In court, he rather coolly offered up an excuse (okay, a pretty lame one, but still an excuse) that Paris didn't actually know her license was suspended because Paris doesn't read her own mail. Her "people" read her mail, and therefore Paris mustn't be found guilty of violating probation because her "people" failed to call her attention to the all-important suspension notice from the DMV.

Apparently, however, Judge Sauer was unconvinced that not a single person among Hilton's phalanx of lawyers and other advisors (including her then-publicist) had cautioned her not to drive. He ruled against Hilton, and sentenced her to 45 days behind bars, as requested by the prosecution.

In Paris-speak, the decision was definitely not "hot." In lawyer-speak, it was unjust.

Many laypeople applauded the judge's stance, pleased that a spoiled little rich girl was not "above the law." In contrast seasoned Southern California lawyers realized that a 45-day jail sentence for driving on a suspended license is exceedingly harsh, impractical, and a punishment not befitting the crime. That is, we realized that not only was Paris not receiving special treatment, but she was being "made an example of," receiving a sentence far harsher than an ordinary person would receive.

Granted, some of the judge's pique at Paris and her lawyers and other advisors may have been caused by his strong suspicion that some or all of them had lied to the court. But the judge - while expressing skepticism at the credulity of what he had heard -- never made any express reference to perjury or false statements.

If this was indeed the basis for the harsh sentence, then Judge Sauer should have said as much, so that his reasoning could be challenged on appeal. Perjury is a crime; lawyers' false statements to the court can be punished by disbarment. But these are serious accusations, and it is wrong for a judge to implicitly punish defendants or lawyers for what he is unwilling to explicitly charge them for having done.

Paris's Release, and Subsequent Proceedings

Talk about interesting twists of fate: Two days after shedding her Jimmy Choos for prison flip flops, Paris was "reassigned" to house arrest, in a decision made entirely by the Los Angeles County Sheriff, Lee Baca.

Had Paris been quiet about it, she might still be recuperating from her two-day jail stint in the comfort of her own Egyptian-cotton sheets.

Instead, Hilton immediately issued a written statement thanking the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for their fairness and professionalism. Paris practically thanked the Academy: Her sense of relief was palpable.

It was also short-lived.

Judge Sauer ordered sheriff's deputies to go to Hilton's home and bring her to court. Then, Sauer chastised the sheriff for undermining his orders, which specifically banned home confinement with electronic monitoring, proclaiming, "At no time did I approve the defendant being released from custody to her home."

Baca cited "severe medical problems" as the basis for releasing the heiress to home confinement. While the Sheriff is precluded from revealing the exact nature of Paris' medical problem due to confidentiality issues, he characterized her condition as "psychological."

In addition, Baca further justified his decision by explaining that Los Angeles County adheres to a "ten percent early release program." According to Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore, most non-violent, misdemeanor offenders serve just ten percent of their sentence. "Under our 10 percent early release program," Whitmore explained, "[Hilton] would not have served any time in our jail, or would have been directly put on [a] home electronic monitoring system." Baca has also commented -- when asked whether Hilton received special treatment because of her celebrity -- "She got more time in jail [because of it]."

Now, in my ten years of practice in Southern California, I've never heard of the so-called "ten-percent early release program." However, it is a well-established fact that California county jail inmates earn "work credits" and "good time" credits, which serve to drastically reduce the actual number of days served on any sentence. In other words, even though Paris was sentenced to 45 days, the actual time she or any other inmate with the same sentence might be expected to serve would be closer to half that.

Moreover, let's suppose Baca (who's surely in a position to know) is correct, and L.A. does indeed have an informal practice - perhaps falling short of an official program, but nonetheless a pattern - of having inmates serving only ten percent of their sentences. If so, then Paris or any other similarly-situated inmate should have served only about four-and-a-half days. If that's true, then Paris's release seems much less outrageous than many have painted it as being.

The Judge was also unmoved by the pleas of Hilton's three lawyers to send her back to home confinement due to an unspecified medical condition. Yet it seems that his decision may have been based on an omission that was the fault of the Sheriff's Office -- not of Paris or her attorneys.

The judge repeatedly noted, during the hearing, that the Sheriff's Office had failed to provide needed documentation as to the alleged medical condition to the court, and as a result, the judge could not assess the basis for the Sheriff's decision. But the solution was for the judge to request or order the Sheriff's Office to provide that documentation, and to wait until they had. It certainly wasn't to send an inmate whom the Sheriff's Office believed to be seriously ill straight back to jail in order to further a turf fight between the court and the Sheriff's Office.

Alternatively, the judge could have taken closed-court testimony from Paris and from Paris's doctor (she was reportedly visited by her psychiatrist) to assess the legitimacy of the condition. Requests to courts to modify the circumstances of their orders are routine, and the court should have known exactly what to do: look at evidence to see if the order should indeed be modified. That evidence was accessible, so why wasn't it heard?

The "Paris Principle": Celebrities Can't and Shouldn't Be Treated Like the Rest of Us When It Comes to Criminal Sentencing

When it comes to paying her debt to society, Paris has been overcharged.

Celebrities are not like the rest of us; their lives and situations can be very different.

These differences, fair or unfair, are genuine - and thus they should be considered when meting out punishment. This doesn't put celebrities "above the law," it simply ensures that the law accords with reality - which is always a good thing.

It seemed Judge Sauer, in imposing an especially harsh sentence, was trying to prove celebrities are - or at least this celebrity is - not "above the law." But to truly make the point that Paris ought to comply with the law like everyone else, he should simply have given her the precise sentence any other defendant in the same situation would receive. Fairness is fairness, whether the defendant is rich or poor.

Or alternatively, the judge might have given Paris an equivalent sentence that recognized the reality of her celebrity status - incorporating a few days in jail, but also perhaps an anti-DUI public service announcement, or serious community service contribution. Such efforts might have far longer-lasting effects on both Paris and the rest of the world, than any amount of time she spends languishing in jail.

Moreover, such a sentence would have recognized two stark realities: First, Paris, unlike the average defendant, has a podium she can use to do good if she so chooses. Second, Paris, unlike the average defendant is likely to have lived a life of privilege that means she might benefit from learning about the lives of the less fortunate, and doing some good - whether it means donating computers, working with kids, or volunteering for the Red Cross.

Justice may be blind, but it's not one-size fits all. It should be acceptable to take these realities into account.

When Will Paris Be Released? And Can She Sue For Her Longer-than-Usual Sentence?

Given her good time and work credits, it is likely Paris Hilton will be released from jail on or about June 25 - or even as early as June 22. After that, if I were her, I would embark on a project. Let's call it the "Paris Project."

Here's the question the Paris Project would investigate: In the last five years, in California how many similarly-situated defendants received 45 days - or, indeed, any time at all - in jail for one probation violation (consisting of driving or the like, not of, say, carrying a gun)?

The answers will be readily available in the public records. The project will take some time, and money, but Hilton is in the unique position to have both.

My experience says that Paris' sentence was disparate, and if she can prove that, she may have a big, fat claim against the Los Angeles City's Attorney's Office, as well as the Superior Court of Los Angeles and maybe even Judge Sauer himself. Such claims - typically brought under federal, state, or local civil rights statutes -- are notoriously hard to prove, but this may be one case where the facts speak very eloquently. If others in Paris's situation truly received sentences of little or no jail time, it seems quite clear that she was singled out.

Even so, Paris will still have to contend with legal immunities for prosecutors and judges, and with the fact that the singling out occurred on the basis of celebrity status and socioeconomic class - not based on race, sex or national origin - will make the case harder to win. Yet if the evidence shows a serious wrong was done to her - and she was treated far more harshly than others for no other reason that her famous name and her wealth - then let's hope she can find a cause of action to press, for that is simply unjust, and something our system should address.

Jonna M. Spilbor is an attorney and legal analyst on "Kelly's Court," airing daily on the Fox News Channel. Spilbor is also the host of a call-in radio show Thursdays on WPDH FM, and is a frequent guest commentator on MSNBC, Court-TV and other television news networks, where she has covered many of the nation's high-profile criminal trials. In the courtroom, she has handled hundreds of cases as a criminal defense attorney, and also served in the San Diego City Attorney's Office, Criminal Division, and the Office of the United States Attorney in the Drug Task Force and Appellate units. In 1998, she earned certification as a Court Appointed Special Advocate with the San Diego Juvenile Court. She is a graduate of Thomas Jefferson School of Law, where she was a member of the Law Review.

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