September 8, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Sally Struthers case no meathead justice

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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:


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