Pubdate: Wed, 18 Feb 2009
Source: State, The (SC)
Copyright: 2009 The State
Author: Cindi Ross Scoppe, Associate Editor
Cited: Richland County sheriff


IF LEON Lott really did treat Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps the same
way he would treat anyone else, then his priorities and sense of
proportionality are seriously out of whack.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. This isn't the sort of thing I
normally write about, but the media hype and frenzied response that
has accompanied our sheriff's strange, ephemeral attempt to
reconstruct a misdemeanor drug crime raises several important issues --
and non sequiturs -- that simply cry out for perspective.

Let's start with the most ridiculous claim -- that this bizarre case
somehow demonstrates that our drug laws are nonsensical. Please. I
have questions about whether it makes sense to treat marijuana
differently from alcohol (it certainly doesn't from a medical
perspective), and wish we could have a grown-up discussion about that.
But this case does nothing to advance either side of the drug
decriminalization debate, precisely because it is so very atypical.
Just as bizarre, outlier cases make for bad court rulings, they lead
to some of our worst laws.

Nor is there any legitimacy to the claims of all those whiny
idol-worshippers who insist that Mr. Phelps was being persecuted. This
isn't even debatable. Like it or not, using marijuana is against the
law, the law is well-known, and no one who uses the drug has any right
to complain about getting arrested. Period.

That's particularly true for a celebrity. As Mr. Lott suggested, fame
carries a heavy burden for both celebrities and any public officials
who encounter celebrity wrongdoing. Because celebrities are
front-page, talk-show-fodder news, their crimes are, too. For police
to ignore their misdeeds creates cynicism, because people assume
they're getting a pass as a result of their fame (or wealth, or
power), and sends a message to impressionable fans that the
celebrity's unpunished deeds are acceptable. If police had gotten a
complaint about the now-infamous Blossom Street party while it was in
progress back in November, raided it and found Mr. Phelps in
possession of marijuana, they absolutely should have arrested him. And
anyone who didn't like that would properly have been told that their
beef was with the Legislature that wrote the law, not with the police
who were enforcing it.

But that's not what happened. It was more than two months after the
fact that police learned, by way of a photograph that doesn't actually
prove anything, that Mr. Phelps might have been using marijuana. On
the basis of that and Mr. Phelps' own implicit admission, Mr. Lott
dispatched deputies to identify and track down other college students
who attended the party and raid their homes, knocking down doors, guns
drawn, to look for drugs and press them for evidence against Mr. Phelps.

And here we come to Mr. Lott's insistence that the Phelps case was no
different than any other case. He would have treated anybody the same
way, he said at his news conference Monday. And yes, that means he
would have told his narcotics investigators to try to create a case if
he saw a picture of some anonymous adolescent holding a bong, he told
my colleague Warren Bolton on Tuesday.

Now, it's fairly common -- and in most instances absolutely legitimate
and wise -- for police to put together a criminal case by working their
way up a chain, building charges against minor players, then offering
them immunity in return for turning over evidence against a more
important target. But these heavy-handed shoot-'em-up and roll-'em
tactics are labor-intensive, and they endanger lives and subject
police to potentially expensive lawsuits. That's why they are reserved
for the pursuit of dangerous criminals and major criminal enterprises.
(Or, minus the guns and door-smashing, vote-selling state legislators,
a la Operation Lost Trust, where the feds caught lobbyist Ron Cobb
with drugs and then got him to run an elaborate sting that netted a
tenth of our state Legislature on extortion and drug charges.) Such
tactics are not appropriate for a misdemeanor drug possession case
that most prosecutors would likely plead down or divert to a pretrial
intervention program.

It is a ridiculous waste of resources for our state to lock up every
petty drug user it can get its hands on, forcing taxpayers to fund
these people's care and feeding while they get a first-rate education
on how to become real criminals. We need instead to send them through
the intensive probation programs, with strictly enforced drug
treatment, education and work requirements, that Attorney General
Henry McMaster is advocating (when he isn't busy advocating the
abolition of parole), so we can turn them into productive citizens
rather than productive criminals. That's not an issue at play here --
at most, at most, Mr. Phelps might have done 30 days in the county
jail if somehow Mr. Lott had been able to make a case against him. But
the attitudes that brought this sports superstar up against a
drug-busting Southern sheriff are the very same attitudes that lead to
the counterproductive, bankrupting policy that endangers the public
and destroys lives. And they all need to change.
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