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June 16, 2009

NFL player gets very short jail term for drunk driving killing

This updated article from the Miami Herald, headlined "Donte' Stallworth gets 1 month in jail, 2 years house arrest in DUI death," provides the latest celebrity sentencing news that gets me all riled up again about the leniency too often shown to drunk drivers.  Here are the sentencing basics:

Accepting responsibility for the drunk-driving crash that killed a pedestrian on Miami Beach, NFL player Donte' Stallworth pleaded guilty Tuesday and was sentenced to serve one month in a Miami-Dade County jail. Stallworth, 28, was immediately taken into custody.

After he gets out, Stallworth will serve two years of house arrest followed by eight years' probation, according to his plea deal. He will also lose his driving privileges for life and have to perform 1,000 hours of community service.

Stallworth has also agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to the Reyes family. ''I will continue to bear this burden the rest of my life,'' Stallworth told Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy, who imposed the sentence.

The Cleveland Browns wide receiver was charged with DUI manslaughter in the death of Mario Reyes, 59, a crane operator who was crossing the MacArthur Causeway on the morning of March 14 to catch the bus home when he was struck and killed.

Stallworth, driving a black Bentley, had a blood alcohol level of .126, well above the legal limit, according to prosecutors. He had been drinking at a posh Miami Beach nightclub earlier that morning.

Prosecutors filed formal charges June 4, and Stallworth had pleaded not guilty.  The unusually speedy end to the case came at the urging of the Reyes family, which wanted to resolve the matter to avoid further emotional trauma.

In offering the deal, prosecutors considered Stallworth's clean driving record, remorse for Reyes' death and his cooperation with investigators.

This very short jail term strikes me as insufficient for killing someone while driving drunk, especially since drunk driving is a deterrable offense that ends lots of innocent lives unnecessarily.  Though the house arrest and other parts of the sentence make the sanction more severe than just a month in jail, the message that will resonate with the average citizen is that the "price" of drinking and driving and killing is merely a month in jail.  I wonder how many innocent lives this lenient sentence might cost as football fans now have even less of a reason to give much thought to finishing that extra beer before driving home after the big game.

I get aggravated about undue leniency in this context in part because because I represent clients sentenced to so much more prison time for doing what strikes me as a much less serious offense purportedly for the sake of general deterrence.  Consider, for example, my client Weldon Angelos is now serving his sixth year of his 55-year sentence for dealing marijuana.  Or consider the sentencing fate of other NFL players who committed seemingly less serious crimes: Michael Vick got years in federal prison for dog fighting and Plaxico Burress is facing years in state prison for shooting himself.  But Donte' Stallworth gets only a month for killing an innocent pedestrian while drinking and driving.

Of course, the real back-story here seems to involve the victim's family being happy to get a (huge?) pay-off rather than a long prison term.  As I often stress in other settings, some victims will prefer funds and finality to a long sentence.  I do not begrudge the Reyes family for caring more about funds and finality in this setting, but I am troubled that prosecutors and the sentencing judge did not see the potential value of sending a more potent general deterrence message through a longer jail sentence in this case.

Some related posts on sentencing drunk drivers:

June 16, 2009 at 01:01 PM | Permalink


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hard to know what to think here--one of the issues is where you draw the line between society's protection and the victim's family's interest.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 16, 2009 1:07:22 PM

Doug --

I agree. The prosecutor represents society's interests, not those of the victim's family, no matter how sympathetic and deserving they may be. This has the aroma of the defendant's buying his way to a light sentence by making the family an offer they couldn't refuse.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 16, 2009 1:21:51 PM

Bill, I am not disagreeing with you, but I don't think you can forget that the victims' family was put in a bad situation and that they may have views on how it needs to be dealt with. Simply ignoring their interests, I don't think, is the right answer either.

I don't think you can take such a categorical position.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 16, 2009 1:25:55 PM

The two years of house arrest and other conditions makes this sentence far more palletable than my initial reaction to 30 days. As has been mentioned before confinement space is a limited and expensive resource which should be used wisely. Far better to make the offender pay for their own incarceration when possible.

House arrest also gives further incentive to comply with the sentencing terms because it can always be revoked. I would think the step from house arrest to formal prison is a much bigger move than being transferred between security levels in prison facilities.

I would ask how this compares to other DUI manslaughter cases in FL, it would not surprise me if this is actually harsher than a typical sentence.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jun 16, 2009 1:55:37 PM

I share your frustration when I think of the lengthy sentences handed out to my clients who've done things that seem to me far less worthy of punishment than what Stallworth did. But rather than see this as essentially DUI leniency, I'm inclined to see it as celebrity leniency.

I know there are counter-examples, and you mention a few in your post, but isn't the real story how often the rich and prominent get away with a slap on the wrist for what the little guy, often indigent, gets punished with years in prison?

As for the family, I don't begrudge them their desire for cash and quiet, but I deeply resent prosecutors who see themselves as the agents of victims and their families rather than as seekers of justice on behalf of the state.

Posted by: Jeff Gamso | Jun 16, 2009 2:07:36 PM

"but I deeply resent prosecutors who see themselves as the agents of victims and their families"

Is the issue really that simple?

Posted by: federalist | Jun 16, 2009 2:20:22 PM

I agree with Jeff. I represented an 18-year old with a past speeding ticket on his record last year who, stone cold sober, wrecked his car and killed a man who was not wearing his seat belt. He pleaded to MVH after the prosecutor threatened to add more charges and received five years, after the family's outcry influenced the probation officer to recommend a lengthy jail sentence. I don't know how the family would have reacted had my client been wealthy, but I suspect the temptation to enter into a settlement on the civil case often influences the family's recommendations, which in turn influence the prosecutors, the probation office and even the court. In the case I worked on, the PSI included information that the victim had been appointed by the Republican governor to a post, which I knew was bad news for my poor client who facing a judge who'd been active in politics and recently appointed by the Republican governor. In other words, in that case, the outcome was affected not only by the defendant's lack of funds and connections but also by the victim's friends in high places.

Along these lines, do you ever wonder what would have happened to Kobe if he lacked the funds to settle with the victim in his case?

Posted by: David | Jun 16, 2009 2:23:53 PM

David, was there more to the story? Five years seems very very harsh. Was he going 100 mph?

Posted by: federalist | Jun 16, 2009 2:33:46 PM

I agree with you Doug. Completely.

As for Federalist. I agree that it's "not that simple." I support victims rights. But the prosecutors *first* duty is to represent society; it is not to represent the victims. This does not mean that the victims desires should be ignored. But they don't get pride of place either.

One month smacks of a buy-off--blood money. Even if it's not really true, the appearance is there. It's especially troubling that the amount is undisclosed. How is that in the public interest.

My point. I agree that it's not that simple. But you need to make a convincing case why the victim's rights triumph in this particular case. Because I just don't see it. The facts as we know them argue in the opposite direction.

Posted by: Daniel | Jun 16, 2009 3:12:37 PM

You can debate this sentence both ways - I tend to see it as legit given that there's no intent to cause death or any other kind of harm present, but I can certainly see the argument for the other side. What I don't get, however, is an argument that this guy's sentence is too light based on sentences handed down for completely different types of crimes. 55 years is rediculously long for a pot crime. But that doesn't mean that this sentence, for this crime, is too short.

Posted by: Anon | Jun 16, 2009 3:28:01 PM

Is blood money all that bad? What if the decedent had a family to feed? If I were killed by a drunk driver, I'd probably prefer that my family get more jack. I think the calculus changes for more heinous crimes.

To be honest, I don't really know what to think about all of this. I think Doug and other commenters in here have gone off a little half-cocked. I'll leave it to others to question my ability to say that, given my posting history in here.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 16, 2009 6:54:46 PM

There's a flaw in the reasoning behind this post, in that criminal sentences are among the least effective ways to send a "message" to the general public. Criminal sentences should be about justice in the specific case at hand, not platforms for propagandizing. If you want to send a message, buy advertising on TV. It reaches more people and gets a lot more effective bang for the buck if that is your goal.

In reality, the drunk at the football game simply isn't thinking about Stallworth's sentence one way or another, and to posit that this sentence may somehow be responsible for some future fan's behavior IMO is a false, cheap shot. Stallworth's "crime" was in reality a terrible accident, one for which he's paying mightily through the civil courts, as is appropriate. The other athletes' offenses to which you compare it were intentional criminal acts involving planning and forethought. You say they are "less serious crimes" because here death was involved, but Stallworth's "crime" was unintentional - reckless, certainly, but it's just not the same brand of intentional criminality as the pot dealer, the big-league dog fighter, the guy firing a handgun in a nightclub, etc..

The truth is, the desire NOT to kill someone is a MUCH bigger deterrent for the average person to DWI than the risk of high criminal penalties. Just because you impute criminality to their behavior doesn't mean most drunk drivers have criminal motives or mindsets. Drinking and driving in and of itself is not a crime and drivers can't know their own BAC levels.

I agree with Soronel that house arrest and probation are more likely to put limits on Stallworth that actually alter his behavior, which makes the public safer in the future than just sending another drunk to prison on the taxpayers' dime.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jun 17, 2009 8:09:50 AM

Generally speaking, victims may be heard at any proceeding involving a post-arrest release decision, a plea, or sentencing. This doesn't just apply when they want to hang the defendant.

Posted by: Stanley Feldman | Jun 17, 2009 9:04:31 AM

Maybe more states should allow private prosecutors so that the victims can have someone speak for them; and the ones that do perhaps should expand their authority to be employed. As it stands now, many victims are ignored by prosecutors because the state, not the victim, is the client. Seems rational to me that a victim might see more value to him in a financial settlement and a month in jail, than a 3-year sentence and no settlement.

Posted by: = | Jun 17, 2009 9:40:29 AM

Grits' post is interesting. A few thoughts:

1) "Criminal sentences should be about justice in the specific case at hand, not platforms for propagandizing."

Deterrence is a tried and true rationale for punishment. Doug's post (as is so often the case) is full of hyperbole, but he's right to worry that deterrence is undermined here. Additionally, Grits, somehow I doubt you agree with your statement in all instances. Take the crack-powder disparity. The criticisms there are not "justice in the specific case", but rather some appeal to cosmic fairness and tut-tutting over the racial breakdown of drug offenders.

2) You're probably right that from a recidivism standpoint, Stallworth is worth the risk.

3) Your comment about drunk driving not being a crime is baffling. The point is that a care is a dangerous thing and intentionally operating a dangerous thing while impaired is morally blame-worthy.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 17, 2009 11:24:44 AM

The motorists I fear most are those applying eye makeup or regaling friends in animated cell-phone conversations. Sometimes sleepy truckers and really old people do scary things.

And if any of those folks kill me on the highway I'll be just as dead as if they'd been drinking. But what routinely keeps those kinds of folks out of big-league trouble is what(apart from the pro-sports angle) links the cases of Stallworth, Burress and Vick: the existence (or absence) of small but powerful constituencies clamoring for ever harsher penalties.

I never thought it was a good idea to put grieving mothers in charge of punishing drunken drivers. Gun lobbies, for and against, have made owning a gun a mine field of legal jeopardy. And PETA and other animal-loving groups will never tire of tormenting Michael Vick.

Apparently no similarly zealous lobbying forces have formed to persecute dangerously distracted, sleep-deprived or age-incapacitated drivers.

Bad accidents happen; not all of them need to be redressed with showy burnings at the stake.

federalist -- some "white collar" inmates had no idea they were breaking laws until agents knocked on their door, including some who had hired lawyers to keep them out of trouble. How does deterence work in their circumstances?

Posted by: John K | Jun 17, 2009 12:32:25 PM

I am the mother of a young man who just went through the Florida court system for the same offence DUI Manslaughter. Although his blood alcohol was tested at .04 they "recreated" it to what they felt the level would have been at the exact time of the accident and not suprisingly came up with the .08 needed for that offence. As I understand it Stallworth was almost twice that amount. Having just gone through this we learned that in the State of Florida there is a Manditory sentance of 5 years for DUI Manslaughter. In some cases the judge does have discretion regarding mandatory sentancing based on a point system and can increase or decrease the sentance accordingly. But it is stipulated that with the factor of substance abuse involved in the case then the judge does not have that liberty. This brings me to wondering what the heck went on. Stallworth should have been required to serve the Manditory sentance of 5 years. Is the fact that my son, who also never had any other infractions, was a United States Marine at the time (the Marines dumped him before sentancing), totally cooperated with the police and judicial system, but was UNABLE TO PAY LARGE SUMS OF MONEY TO WHO KNOWS HOW MANY PARTIES, and is now serving 5 years, 10 years probation, loss of license for life. He has faced this without complaint.
The law should be the same for everyone. Florida needs to straighten this out.

Posted by: papagaeo | Jun 18, 2009 6:28:24 PM

Papagaeo touches on an under-reported aspect of this case. If Stallworth pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter, which carries a four-year mandatory minimum, how did the judge sentence him to 30 days? I'm no expert on Florida law, so there may be some aspect of the case that I'm not understanding. But it seems to me that Stallworth got an illegal sentence. Can anybody explain what happened here?

Posted by: DougR | Jul 2, 2009 11:36:52 AM

this is rediculous!! i month and jail house arrest for 2 years and 1,000 hours in community service does not make up for killing an innocent persons life! this is unlawful!

Posted by: megan | Dec 3, 2009 10:51:03 AM

public to be people they are an example for children, youth and adults and should be a bit more responsible, or manage your image very well but now that fall in crime or be persons responsible and take responsibility for the case.

Posted by: tinea corporis diagnosis | May 6, 2010 6:25:09 PM

Choose which DUI attorney is the best on your case. Picking the most experienced will have high success rate. Also choose whom the victim is comfortable, along with its service fee. Also check if he or she is a member or affiliated with the National College of DUI Defense. The best solution to avoid and reduce drunken driving fatalities is the willingness to cooperate of the public and reduce drinking when you know that you have a car to drive home.

Posted by: DUI attorney orange county | Aug 20, 2010 1:41:50 PM

Wow, why oh why - is it because of what?

Posted by: Derick | Oct 6, 2010 4:18:17 AM

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