Is justice also served for the rich and famous?
Money can buy the best legal counsel, but fame also draws public scrutiny.
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The story of the gilded bird sent to live in a steel-bar cage is a kind of Cinderella story in reverse – a riches to rags cautionary tale against acting as if one is exempt from the rules that apply to everybody else.
But the case of jailed socialite Paris Hilton, some say, also offers this lesson to the rich and famous who run afoul of the law: In court, celebrity can become your enemy.
At the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, the sheriff's office is set to offer its explanation as to why Ms. Hilton was released just three days into her sentence for violating probation after a drunken-driving conviction. A judge promptly ordered the heiress returned to jail, but the resulting outcry against county Sheriff Lee Baca, which includes a local campaign to recall him for gross mismanagement, points to the challenges of meting out celebrity justice.
Some national and local activists suggest that Hilton's wealth and fame have won her privileges that poorer, lesser-known citizens would not receive: a lighter sentence, a nicer jail cell, access to better medical and psychiatric care, and easy-access visitation privileges for her parents.
Others, though, say Hilton's notoriety has brought her worse treatment – more jail time than average for her infraction – by officials who want to send a message that justice is indeed blind to the fame and fortune of lawbreakers.
Justice system in the spotlight
Either way, Hilton's scrape with the law gives the public a truer lens on the pressures placed on judges, courts, and jailers when a high-profile case is before them. At stake is public confidence in the justice system, which can take a hit if citizens conclude that different rules apply to celebrities.
"We are such a celebrity-driven society that when a celebrity gets into trouble – whether it's Mel Gibson with an anti-Semitic rant or a Lindsay Lohan or a Paris Hilton for drunk driving – the system itself is put in the spotlight," says Ralph Michael Stein, a professor at Pace University School of Law in White Plains, N.Y. "Once a celebrity is arrested and all the media trucks show up with boom mikes and reporters, courts and judges and police all know they are going to be under the microscope.... I would argue that because of this, most err on the side of too much constraint to prove they are not being preferential."
But the pressure works in different ways, say experts. Most acknowledge that it pays to be wealthy, because rich defendants can afford better legal counsel. But fame is another matter, and it can counteract any advantage of wealth, they say. Zealous prosecutors can dig in, knowing they can make their career by bringing down a famous person.
The nature of the crime and the public's view – positive or negative – of the famous person also play a role in building or eroding that confidence.
"Money can increase your options and sometimes buy you time," says Jean Rosenbluth, a former prosecutor for the US attorney's office in Los Angeles. "But it can't help you escape the evidence.... Look at [actress] Winona Ryder or [home-furnishings maven] Martha Stewart – they had big-money lawyers and both lost their cases."
Hilton to do more time than the norm
In Hilton's case, legal experts say she will end up serving more time in a Los Angeles County jail than do most others convicted of similar offenses. She has been ordered to jail for 23 days of her 45-day sentence – a punishment that some media and pundits initially characterized as light.
"Baca's county jail system has been so overcrowded that misdemeanor defendants have been serving only 0 to 10 percent of their time," says Jody Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "Ironically, ... now that the judge put her back to serve the remainder of her time, she is serving more time than most."
A Los Angeles Times report on June 14 confirms this assessment, calculating that Hilton will serve more time than 80 percent of people with similar sentences.
"Celebs have it easier on the front end.... They have better access to quality representation, jurors are enamored, and so on," says Alafair Burke, associate professor at Hofstra University School of Law in Hempstead, N.Y. "However, once they're convicted, they're arguably treated worse because the sentencing judge, aware that a celebrity-obsessed culture is watching, doesn't want to look soft."
As the Hilton case plays out, experts are looking to Tuesday's testimony from a county undersheriff for a better understanding of why Baca released Hilton on June 7, citing an unspecified medical condition.
The case may also serve to clarify state and local regulations concerning discretion of judges and jailers – especially when dealing with jail overcrowding. Steve Whitmore, spokesman for Baca, says the law gives the sheriff "sole, exclusive authority" over county jails.
Some experts question that. "I have never heard of a penal system where the guy running the jail – the sheriff, the warden, the jailer, or whatever – ... can walk down the corridor and say, 'Love your hair. I'm letting you out today,' " says Milton Hirsch, an adjunct professor at the University of Miami and a past president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "It does hurt the system when there is the perception that the ordinary, regular guy is not going to get equal justice under the law."
"There are cost and safety issues that come up with a high-profile case like Hilton," says Robert Jarvis, professor of law and popular culture at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Depending on what light is shed on [Baca's] motives, this case could raise all kinds of questions about enforceable cooperation between judges and sheriffs."