When celebrities like Paris Hilton or Floyd Mayweather Jr. are arrested in Las Vegas and charged with crimes, the local and national media pays close attention to how the cases are resolved. As evidenced by comments left on the Las Vegas Review Journal website and on other news source sites, some people seem to think that these celebrities receive "special treatment" or overly lenient sentences. Is this true? Coming from a criminal defense attorney practicing in Las Vegas, I can tell you the answer is NO.
The plea negotiations that many celebrities have entered into in recent memory and the sentences they have received are not better or more lenient than a non-celebrity is able to achieve with the help of a good criminal defense attorney. In fact, some celebrity sentences are arguably harsher than a non-celebrity would expect to receive given similar facts and a similar criminal record. Let's take a look at some celebrity criminal charges in Las Vegas and analyze whether any of these people received "special treatment" or unfair leniency. Specifically, I'm going to write about the cocaine possession charges of Paris Hilton and Bruno Mars, analyze how those charges were resolved with plea negotiations, and discuss whether each of them received "special treatment" or just a good deal.
(1) Bruno Mars
In 2010, singer Bruno Mars was charged with possession of a controlled substance (cocaine). According to police and prosecutors, Mars used cocaine in a bathroom stall at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Apparently his cocaine use was so obvious that a bathroom attendant alerted police. When confronted outside the restroom by a Las Vegas Metro officer, Mars confessed immediately and gave up the drugs. He was then arrested and later charged. This is a common scenario in Las Vegas clubs and hotels, as bathroom attendants and other casino employees are instructed to be on the lookout for illegal drug use. I have represented many Las Vegas visitors charged with felony drug possession under these exact circumstances.
Mars "waived up" from Las Vegas Justice Court and entered into a guilty plea in Clark County District Court. According to the terms of the agreement, he pled guilty to the charge, possession of a controlled substance, a category E felony. However, adjudication was stayed for a period of informal probation for 1 year, during which time Mars agreed to pay a fine of $2,000, complete 200 hours of community service, complete drug counseling, and stay out of trouble (i.e., avoid arrests for any new charges). If Mars completed these requirements, the charge would be dismissed. Mars did, in fact, complete these requirements, and according to the plea deal, his charge was dismissed and the case was closed. So Bruno Mars has no conviction, not even for a misdemeanor, on his record.
So did Bruno Mars receive special treatment? No. His lawyers did a great job and he got a very good deal, but he did not receive any special treatment or leniency. I've worked out similar deals for numerous non-celebrities under substantially similar facts, and so have many other criminal defense attorneys.
Keep in mind, although the charge was ultimately dismissed, Mars had to complete some heavy court-ordered requirements. Let's analyze what he had to do. The fine of $2,000 is not much given Mars' income, but it is high for the charged offense. The order to complete 200 hours of community service is substantial and one that most drug defendants are not ordered to do. Drug counseling is a standard requirement for possession charges, and the order to stay out of trouble is present in every single negotiated deal in Las Vegas. So of the 4 requirements, 2 are standard requirements and the others are high compared to what many other non-celebrities receive in similar cases.
Why are those 2 requirements harsher than average? Mars' defense attorneys offered to do more than the usual amount of community service and pay a higher than average fine in exchange for a complete dismissal of the charge. This is a fair exchange, and something that is done in non-celebrity drug cases every day in Las Vegas Courts.
Also, remember that Mars pled guilty to the felony drug charge with a stayed adjudication. Because adjudication was stayed, he wasn't convicted, but If Mars had failed to complete his requirements or picked up a new criminal charge during the year he was on informal probation, then he would have had a felony conviction on his record. Obviously, Mars' attorneys were confident that Mars would complete his probation successfully. This brings us to our next celebrity, Paris Hilton, who was charged with the same crime as Mars, during the same year, and was prosecuted by the same Deputy District Attorney. Yet Paris Hilton entered into a plea deal that was notably different (but still favorable).
(2) Paris Hilton
Paris Hilton was also arrested on the Las Vegas Strip in 2010 for cocaine possession. According to police, a motorcycle cop followed Hilton, who was driving near the Wynn, when he smelled an odor of marijuana smoke coming from her Cadillac Escalade. Hilton was pulled over for suspected DUI. Apparently when she was going through her purse, a bag of cocaine fell out in front of the Metro officer. She was essentially caught red handed and had no real defense.
Paris Hilton was charged in Las Vegas Justice Court with possession of a controlled substance and obstructing a public officer. She later pled guilty to two charges: the obstruction charge and a reduced misdemeanor drug charge called possession of a dangerous drug not to be introduced into interstate commerce (a violation of NRS 454.351). So what was her punishment? She was ordered to complete drug counseling (an intensive outpatient substance abuse program), pay a fine of $2,000 ($1,000 per count), and complete 200 hours of community service. She was also ordered to stay out of trouble for the pendency of the case, and had a suspended jail sentence of 1 year (6 months consecutive for each count) hanging over her head if she failed to follow the court's orders.
Did Paris Hilton receive special treatment? No. A reduction to a misdemeanor drug charge is not an uncommon result for an experienced criminal defense attorney to achieve. In fact, because her charges were not dismissed, Hilton's treatment is in some ways harsher than what many non-celebrities receive in Las Vegas Justice Court for drug possession charges. As for the court-ordered requirements Hilton had to complete, a $2,000 fine is the highest that can be imposed for a two misdemeanor charges, and the 200 hours of community service and the intensive outpatient drug treatment is more than would typically be ordered. Usually, for a possession of controlled substance reduced to a misdemeanor, the defendant might only have to complete 20 hours of community service (or none at all) and attend an 8-hour online drug course.
So did Paris Hilton receive overly harsh or unfair treatment? No. Unlike Bruno Mars, who had no prior criminal record, Paris Hilton had several run-ins with police prior to this arrest. While these were not serious offenses, they did all seem to be related to drug and/or alcohol abuse. This helps explain why she was ordered to attend a more substantial drug treatment program and complete 200 hours of community service.
Why was Hilton's plea deal different than Mars'? It could have been that the DA wouldn't agree to make that offer based on Hilton's record. Or, perhaps more likely, Hilton's attorneys didn't think, with her history, that she would necessarily complete probation successfully, and didn't want to risk a felony conviction if she messed up. So instead Hilton took the misdemeanor up front, but didn't risk a felony conviction even if she failed to complete her court-ordered sentence. So Mars' deal isn't necessarily better than Hilton's, since Mars had a felony conviction hanging over his head and Hilton did not.
In summary, both Paris Hilton and Bruno Mars received favorable plea negotiations for their drug possession cases. Their lawyers did an excellent job. However, these are not results that can only be achieved by celebrities or the extremely wealthy in Las Vegas courts. No, not everyone charged with felonies will get their charges reduced to simple misdemeanors or dismissed altogether. But regular people with good defense lawyers can work out favorable deals like this.