It's a fundamental American principle: All people are equal in the eyes of the law. But after Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan escaped harsh punishment for their DUI and drug-related convictions, it's hard not to wonder if celebrities are a bit more equal than everyone else.
On Thursday, after prosecutors filed seven misdemeanor drunken driving and cocaine possession charges against her, the 21-year-old Lohan reached a plea deal that calls for her to spend one day in jail, serve 10 days of community service and complete drug and alcohol treatment programs. She was also placed on 36 months probation and issued hundreds of dollars of fines.
While her fellow party girl was brokering her deal, Richie quietly slipped in and out of jail, serving 82 minutes of her 96-hour sentence for a misdemeanor DUI charge. She went in with credit for one day of jail time because she was in custody for six hours after her July arrest. According to Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Maribel, the 25-year-old reality TV star was released "based on her sentence and federal guidelines."
Serving just minutes of jail time for a crime that kill tens of thousands of people each year may seem outrageous, and lawyers who specialize in DUI cases agree that Richie and Lohan's punishments are light. Though they hesitate to say that celebrity status swayed the courts in either case, they admit that both starlets were able to wriggle out of harsher sentences in ways that the average American probably could not.
"Do I think it was star treatment? No," said Los Angeles DUI lawyer Scott Spindel of Richie's 82-minute stint in jail. "But do I think she may have gotten a little more attention than the average person who would have had to sit there in handcuffs? Yes. I've never had a client get out in 82 minutes. Something was going on. It was not just 'Oops, we got lucky.'"
Lawrence Taylor, a Los Angeles attorney who deals exclusively with DUI cases, contends that officials at the Lynwood county detention center where Richie served her time may have had good reason to let her hop in and out of the facility, which, like many Los Angeles jails, is overcrowded and overwhelmed.
"If you're going into the county jail system, there's so much paperwork, so much computer entry, it's such a hassle that they're not going to fool with one day," he said. "They're going to bring you in and they're not going to go through that process. They're going to cut you loose."
But in the case of Lohan, Taylor and Spindel agree that her one day of jail, 10 days of community service sentence is a slap on the wrist compared to the maximum 12 months jail time she could have gotten. Considering the nature of her crimes -- two DUI arrests within three months, both involving alcohol and cocaine -- Spindel said her punishment is not sufficient.
"You're talking about two DUIs within a brief period of time, one involving an accident and being under influence of alcohol and drugs," he said. "One day is not appropriate."
Lohan has until Jan. 18 to serve her day behind bars. Taylor suspects she'll receive the revolving door treatment like Richie, taking advantage of fact that one hour of time in custody is as good as 24.
"The law views any part of one day as one day," he said. "Say you had to do two days -- you could go in at 11 p.m. and leave at 1 a.m. You could be there for two hours, but it counts for two days."
Lohan's sentence and Richie's jail stint come weeks after the most prominent celebutante of them all, Paris Hilton, spent 23 days in jail after being convicted of driving on a suspended license while on probation. While Spindel believes Hilton's sentence was "a raw deal," he worries that the pithy punishments handed down to her hard-partying cohorts will encourage others, including the not so rich and famous, to repeat their mistakes. But without an A-list team of legal and PR experts on their side, they might not fare so well.
"One would think that with all the problems we're seeing with young Hollywood these days, somebody would want to say, 'Hey, these are our role models. We're telling our younger ones that they can go out and get a couple DUIs, do some cocaine and they're only going to get one day in jail," he said. "But I would caution that you shouldn't engage in this type of behavior thinking that this will always be the result. Because it won't always be the result."