By RICHARD MEEHAN
The Cool Justice Report
May 30, 2007
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
By June 5th Paris Hilton will be "playing rock hockey in the big arena." An L.A. judge has ordered her to serve 45 days for violating the conditions of her probation. Hilton's lame attempt at a defense was to claim that she does not read what she signs; she employs others to do that for her. The judge, who does read his own mail, wasn't buying into that argument.
Hilton was previously placed on probation for an alcohol related driving offense. Probation is a privilege afforded by a court, allowing an offender to avoid incarceration. The court suspends the execution of the jail term and places the offender on a period of good behavior. In other words, the offender is sentenced to a jail term, and as long as she obeys the rules established by the probation department she would avoid actual jail time. In some instances, a probation officer strictly supervises the probationer. In less serious cases the defendant is supplied with a set of rules, and an obligation to report periodically to the probation officer, without the need for constant scrutiny.
The core of this concept is that the threat of possible jail creates an impetus for behavioral change. It works in some instances, especially when individuals have learned the serious consequences of violating the law. In other instances, it is just a step in a downward progression of repeated anti-social conduct.
Well meaning, and over burdened probation officers struggle with large caseloads. Drug and alcohol treatment or psychological counseling are made available where needed. People have to be motivated to change. In Hilton's case, she couldn't care-the rules simply didn't apply to her.
Every state has individual rules for probationers, but central to the any probationary term is the requirement to not violate the law. In Connecticut a violation of the conditions of probation gives rise to another arrest, and the actual charge of violating probation. The offender has to post bond again and appear in court, where eventually there is hearing before a judge, without a jury.
If there is a "guilty" finding after a hearing then, as in any contested court case, the individual has an opportunity to appeal. Appeals, however, are limited to whether a court has committed reversible error. Appeals courts defer to the trial judges on factual findings and the exercise of judicial discretion. An appeal challenging either of those issues is nearly impossible to win.
Celebrity status doesn't provide any greater license to a probationer. Flouting the rules has consequences. Hilton's initial response was to seek an appeal, simply because she would not accept responsibility for her conduct.
When an appeal is filed in a criminal case a court has the authority to allow the offender to remain free on bond while the appeal is heard. Appeal bonds are not required by the Constitution, and most serious criminal offenders are required to commence their sentence while the appeal is pending. There are even instances where the offender has served the complete sentence before the appeal has been decided.
Where most people who are incarcerated lose, Hilton apparently stands to gain. Her bad girl image is her claim to celebrity. Her publicist believes the jail bid will actually increase her popularity. I wouldn't be surprised that it spawns a new reality TV show: Paris Does the Big House!
As of this writing Hilton had changed defense lawyers. Her new attorney, an experienced DUI lawyer, has now advised her to forego the appeal and serve the sentence. Legal common sense has prevailed over celebrity temper tantrums.
Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy and is a Charter Fellow, American Academy of Trial Counsel. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Website, www.meehanlaw.com