Thursday, April 24, 2014
There will be no walk of shame. Sally Struthers, known to anyone of a certain age as Archie Bunker's bubbly daughter, Gloria, in the 1970s classic TV series "All in the Family," will not suffer the indignity of a trial on a charge of drunken driving.
Instead, Struthers now stands convicted of driving to endanger, a Class E misdemeanor to which she quietly pleaded guilty via her attorney late last month in York County Superior Court.
So what just happened?
Is this, as Archie Bunker once put it, "some system of judaspudence we got here?"
Or, despite those who assume the celebrity fix was in from the get-go, was this business as usual with a famous name attached?
I'm voting the latter.
"One of the risks we run with somebody like (Struthers) is that we treat her differently from everybody else just because everybody's looking," York County District Attorney Kathryn Slattery said in an interview Friday. "It's my job to step back and say, 'What's the right thing to do?' And that's how we looked at this case."
A case in which, thanks in large part to Struthers, there wasn't much to look at.
This much we know: Early on the morning of Sept. 12, 2012, Struthers was pulled over by an Ogunquit police officer who had probable cause (based on her driving) to think she'd had a few too many.
Struthers, a regular summer performer at the Ogunquit Playhouse who at the time was starring in Dolly Parton's "9 to 5: The Musical," took a field sobriety test as ordered by the officer. But when he told her it was time for a Breathalyzer, she refused.
Maine law doesn't look too kindly on that.
As the officer warned Struthers at the time, she had a "duty to submit" to the test. If she didn't, she'd face an automatic 275-day suspension of her right to drive in Maine.
What's more, if and when the OUI charge went to court, her refusal to exhale could and would be used against her. And if her trial led to an OUI conviction, she'd be looking at a longer license suspension (over and above the automatic 275 days), a steeper fine and a minimum of four days in jail.
Didn't matter. Struthers kept her mouth shut.
Thus, according to Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, her right to drive in Maine was suspended from Oct. 7, 2012, through July 9 of this year -- a purely administrative action that occurs completely outside the criminal case. And, seeing as Struthers lives most of the year in California, a penalty that may not have stung as badly as it might sound.
Technically, Dunlap explained in an interview last week, all 50 states have a reciprocity agreement whereby a suspension in one state (whether you live there or not) is considered a suspension in all states.
Meaning if Struthers drove in California during the period in question and got pulled over, she'd have been in even more trouble?
"Only if they do the (computerized) query," Dunlap replied. "And typically, on a roadside stop, they don't do a 50-state query. It's not an exact science."
Dunlap estimates that 15 percent of people charged with OUI in Maine refuse to be tested for blood alcohol. And while out-of-state residents may weather the resulting automatic suspension better than the average Mainer, they still have a lot more at stake if and when their trial date rolls around. (As in: "OUI conviction lands Struthers in York County Jail.")
So what happened to the criminal OUI charge, for which Struthers was scheduled to stand trial beginning Sept. 23?
Minus the blood-alcohol level, DA Slattery conceded, "the quality of the evidence wasn't that strong."
The state had the officer's probable cause for pulling Struthers over, Slattery said, along with a field sobriety test in which her performance (no pun intended) was not stellar enough to get her off the hook.
What the state didn't have was a video of the arrest or any other eyewitness testimony to corroborate that of the officer. Nor, said Slattery, was Struthers so drunk that she failed to at least complete the sobriety test.
"There were no probable-cause issues," Slattery said, defending the arrest. Rather, "there were beyond-a-reasonable-doubt issues."
The state thus had a choice: Try Struthers for OUI and run a real risk of seeing her acquitted, or accept her guilty plea on the lesser driving-to-endanger charge and call it a day.
(Justice John O'Neil, in accepting the plea, sentenced Struthers to pay $1,210 in fines and fees and tacked on a 30-day license suspension. The 30-day suspension, according to Secretary of State Dunlap, was included concurrently with the 275-day penalty -- although Struthers' license remains under suspension because she hasn't yet paid a $50 "reinstatement fee.")
Enter the peanut gallery.
"I guess it pays to be a celebrity?" wondered one reader in the comments beneath last week's online Press Herald story on the plea deal.
"Justice is very much a function of money," opined another. "The more money you've got ..."
And my favorite, resurrecting Archie Bunker's old nickname for his son-in-law, Michael Stivic: "That judge was a meathead!"
Bottom line, there's nothing about this case that suggests Struthers was treated any differently from any other subject of an OUI arrest. To the contrary, her celebrity arguably cost her more in the end considering how far below the radar the vast majority of these cases fly.
Contacted Friday, Saco attorney John Webb, who specializes in OUI cases and represented Struthers, said he was instructed from the beginning not to discuss his client's case in public.
But speaking generally, Webb pooh-poohed the notion that the rich and famous get a better shake in Maine's criminal justice system than the average Joe (or Sally).
"Just because you have money or fame? I don't agree with that," Webb said. "I think every assistant district attorney in this state looks at every case individually and applies all the factors that need to be considered -- and generally they apply them evenly. I don't think the money factor or fame has anything to do with it."
How about making sure, famous or not so much, that you have a competent lawyer who knows his way around Maine drunken-driving law?
Webb didn't miss a beat.
"I think that has everything to do with it," he said.
FOOTNOTE: In last Sunday's column about the Monument Square protest against a U.S. military strike on Syria, I quoted Peace Action Maine Chairman Seth Berner about the need, at some point, to confront genocide with force. What I should have added, as Berner later noted in an email, is that "Peace Action Maine does not support bombing in general, and we do not support it in Syria."
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: