The stereotypical made for television or Hollywood police car chase of a drunk driver in a luxury automobile with a terrified passenger at his side and a frightened public making sure that it stays out of harm’s way recently took place in Olympia, WA. Further details concerning the incident are provided in a Seattle Times story. Police officers only managed to arrest the driver at gun point after he crashed his Ferrari which reached speeds of up to 100 mph. The driver, who has an extensive history of DUI violations, was driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.16 which is two times higher than the .08 limit established for a DUI offense under Washington law.
Under normal circumstances, one would expect a driver with such a high BAC and history of DUI who is further charged with the felony offense of eluding a police officer to receive a severe sentence. Instead, the judge gave the driver no jail time and one year of work release! I don’t know how much the driver paid for attorney fees, but he sure got his money’s worth. But then again, it may have less to do with the attorney and more to do with the fact that the driver is a rich and prominent citizen whose social status impressed the judge.
The ungrateful public in Olympia was however not impressed with the way our legal system, often referred to as the greatest legal system in the world, worked in the present case. Constitutional law scholars, lawyers, and politicians often appear on the verge of tears when they lecture us on the greatness of our legal system. To the contrary, the citizens of Olympia engaged in a protest to express their outrage at how the rich can buy their way out of legal trouble. Included in protest terrified passenger who appeared to come out of the ordeal unscathed.
The verdict in the drunk driver’s case in Olympia gives rise to the age old cry of ordinary citizens that our legal system treats the rich better than the poor. Do rich DUI defendants fare better than poor ones? We can broaden the question to whether rich defendants fare better than poor ones? Let’s make it even more general and ask whether the rich fare better than the poor in our legal system?
Yes, the rich generally fare better than the poor and everyone else in the legal system. In a DUI case for instance, rich defendants can afford to hire more expensive and presumably better DUI attorneys who come along with the services of other top notch legal professionals such as investigators. Further, judges and juries may form a more favorable impression of a rich defendant which could result in a more favorable outcome for affluent individuals. Ironically, the jurors who are prone to form a favorable impression of a more affluent defendants will most likely come from the same class of citizens who are protesting in Olympia against the drunk driver.
In contrast to affluent defendants, indigent DUI defendants will most likely be represented by an attorney in the public defender’s office who may possess excellent legal skills, but must handle an unconscionable workload and is therefore unable to devote the same time and resources to a client’s case compared to an attorney at a law firm. Inevitably, the probability is higher that the indigent defendant’s defense will be compromised. Additionally, even with representation by an excellent public defender, just as the rich may be viewed in a more favorable light, the poor or middle class defendant is generally less likely to generate the same sympathy from a judge or jury.
The protesters in Olympia are exercising their freedom of speech, indeed a constitutional right that we can boast about, by expressing their anger and frustration at how the court took it easy on a rich defendant who posed a great risk to the public. Like Americans everywhere, the citizens in Olympia just experienced a course in legal reality 101 which they did not and could not appreciate.