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Celebrity Justice

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Celebrity Justice

Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Ritchie, Paris Hilton, Tiger Woods, Nicholas Cage - the list of celebrities who have been arrested or charged with a crime is a long one. Drug possession, lying to investigators, driving while intoxicated, shoplifting - the list of offenses is also a long one. When arrested, are celebrities held to the same standards of justice as the rest of us, or do they receive special treatment in the legal system? If convicted how, do their sentences compare to those of a majority of those in our justice system? In this paper, I argue that celebrity status does give a defendant a number of major advantages, the most important being that they can hire the kind of legal representation that the average person could never afford. Where most people arrested for DWI, drug possession, public indecency or shoplifting have to use a public defender, go into debt to hire a lawyer or accept whatever deal prosecutors offer, rich people can afford the best defense that money can buy. Their careers may even benefit from the publicity surrounding their cases. The difference is not just because of their celebrity status, but also because celebrities have wealth. In many ways celebrities get special treatment by police, prosecutors and judges. While young rappers or sex stars may have their careers enhanced by publicity, others

2. have been able to use their star status to keep proceedings and the terms of settlements private or to escape jail time they otherwise might have had to serve. In general, the special treatment celebrities get receive, make it less likely that they will be convicted of a major offenses or jailed. One exception to their advantage may be, at least in some cases, when it comes to sentencing. There celebrities sometimes receive harsher terms as judges seek to make examples of them. It seems that one of the most visible complaints about a double standard in the criminal justice system is related to race and the socio-economic status of those who are convicted. For example, while they make up a small percentage of the nation’s population, poor African-American and Latino-American males make up a disproportionately large part of the nation’s prison population. Perhaps for this reason when rich, mostly light skinned female stars are arrested, their treatment is held up for special scrutiny. Typical of this complaint is an unsigned online “Judiciary Report” (August 2007) that discusses the light treatment for vehicular and drug or alcohol incidents involving Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Ritchie, Paris Hilton and Brittany Spears. The author complains of these, “… public menaces (are) loose on the streets, behind the wheel, on the road where law-abiding citizens drive” and accurately notes that their behavior could result in serious injury or even death (Judiciary Report). It could be added that little publicity accompanies poor minority men arrested for similar charges. Writing in the Journal of Moral Philosophy, Geoffrey Scarre (2006) notes that “courts of criminal jurisdiction commonly allow for mitigating circumstances when
determining the punishment of convicted wrongdoers.” The concept of mitigation means that not everyone will be punished in identical fashion for a particular crime. Judges and juries weigh factors such as remorse, medical conditions or the person’s past reputation or actions in determining punishment (Scarre 305-307). The perception of the public, however, is that, in general, wealthy stars are not punished to the same level as everyone else. While “The Judiciary Report” also notes that occasionally judges hand down stricter sentences to “set an example,” this is not always the case. As examples, they point to Brittany Spears who was not even issued a ticket for what was probably reckless driving and the amount of time Nicole Ritchie spent in jail for a similar offense: 82 minutes! Paris Hilton, however, was an exception as she was, “hit hard by a judge who knew he could use her as an example” (Judiciary Report). The case of the wealthy heiress to the Hilton hotel chain and TV reality show star shows just how celebrities are often given special treatment. Following several arrests and violations of her probation terms, many complained that she had been granted “privileges that poorer, lesser-known citizens would not receive” these included “a lighter sentence, a nicer jail cell, access to better medical and psychiatric care, and easy-access visitation privileges for her parents” (Wood). The real complaints, however, came when Hilton was released early by the Los Angeles County Sheriff. In this case, a judge stepped in and had her re-arrested. Hilton wound up serving 23 days, which the authors claim was actually more time than about 80% of those convicted of the same charge (Wood). One of the reasons cited by jailors for attempting to release Hilton early is another 4. advantage that wealthy celebrities have. It costs more to keep them in prison than it does for most people. Celebrities must receive special protection from the general prison population and the public. Officials also have to deal with the press who clamor for news, photographs and interviews (Wood). For this reason courts may be reluctant to try and to sentence high profile celebrities since both their trials and incarceration are so expensive. Celebrities also may get special treatment in regards to the press itself. While some are probably seeking the publicity, others do not wish the details of a plea-bargain or cash settlement released. Writing for the American Bar Association, Theodore Boutrous and Michael Dore (2004) point to this as another double standard in “Celebrity Justice.” They note that in a number of “high-profile cases, secrecy has supplanted the public’s constitutional right of access” (Boutrous and Dore). Specifically they outline how information about terms of a settlement for a child sex scandal involving pop star Michael Jackson were kept from the public. Similarly a rape charge against basketball player Kobe Bryant was suppressed by the courts as Bryant wished to keep his ‘clean’ image as a spokesman for Nike. They charge that some judges are “doing everything they can to close the proceedings and information related to the case” (Boutrous and Dore). Apparently even the courts recognize that how big a celebrity is can influence their treatment. When Martha Stewart’s lawyers attempted to suppress information, the Second Circuit court told them that, “with all due respect to Ms. Stewart, her status pales in comparison with that of Mr. Jackson.” Stewart was jailed for tax evasion, although afterward she was allowed to finish her term under house arrest in her mansion – from 5. which she was able to film her TV show (Boutrous and Dore; Borger 2005). Of course, the most famous case involving what some believe was celebrity justice was far more serious than drunken driving or tax evasion. That was the failure to convict O.J. Simpson of murder in a trial in which the defendant and the court spent millions of dollars. Again, the cost of prosecuting celebrities may influence courts whether for a high profile murder, or more likely for lighter offenses such as drug possession, driving while intoxicated or violation of probation. Municipalities are obviously reluctant to spend the money necessary to match what celebrities can spend on their defense (Morris). A Law Professor at Hofstra University summarized what the events described in this paper seem to show: "Celebs have it easier on the front end. They have better access to quality representation, jurors are enamored, and so on…." But, “once they're convicted” they are often treated more harshly by judges who do not want to appear soft. While the majority of those in prison today for drugs, driving under the influence, disorderly conduct, public indecency or other non-violent crimes tend to be minority males; young female celebrities often appear able to pick luxury rehab centers over prison. While average people cannot afford to keep the details of their legal problems private, wealthy stars can. While prosecutors actively seek punishment for average people, wealthy stars often seem able to avoid prosecution. The only exception to the benefits of being rich seem to be that some judges, some times, will sentence a celebrity – once finally convicted – to a harsher sentence in order to use them as a public example.

“Works Cited”
Boutrous, Theordore and Dore, Michael. “Celebrity Justice: A New Double Standard.” American Bar Communications Lawyer 22(3) (Fall 2004)

“Justice System Double Standard.” The Judiciary Report. (August 27, 2007)

Morris, Naomi. “Beyond the verdict.” McCleans 108(42) (October 16, 1995). p. 40.

Scarre, Geoffrey. “Corrective Justice and Reputation.” Journal of Moral Philosophy. 3(3) (2006) pp. 305-319. DOI: 10.1177/1740468106071223

Wood, Daniel. “Is justice also served for the rich and famous?” Christian Science Monitor 99(148) (June 19, 2007) pp. 1,11.

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