LOS ANGELES, Dec. 19, 2008 -- Britney Spears has become campaign fodder in Los Angeles.
ABC News has learned that a candidate in the Los Angeles city attorney's race is polling registered voters about his opponent's decision to charge Spears with a misdemeanor for driving without a license. The pop princess recently went to trial for failing to have a California driver's license at the time she was involved in a 2007 hit and run.
The poll asking about Spears is paid for by Jack Weiss, a candidate for Los Angeles city attorney, who currently serves on the city council. The poll begins by characterizing the work that Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney Michael Amerian did on the Spears case.
"Amerian prosecuted singer Britney Spears for driving with an out-of-state driver's license. Normally, people get a ticket for this but Amerian tried to give Spears a criminal record. The judge dismissed the case and Amerian was criticized for using Spears to draw attention to his political campaign," operators are telling voters.
Voters are then asked: "Does that make you very concerned, somewhat concerned, not that concerned, or not concerned?"
The Spears question, which began earlier this week, will continue for the next couple of days. The poll question was designed by Goodwin Simon Victoria, Weiss's opinion research firm, and the calls are being placed by McGuire Research Service.
Weiss political consultant Ace Smith sees the Spears case as aiding the effort to paint Amerian as a "junior city attorney" who is not up to the task of being the chief prosecutor for the city of Los Angeles with jurisdiction to prosecute all misdemeanor criminal offenses and infractions. The city attorney, who overseas 500 lawyers and 1,000 employees overall, is also the chief legal advisor and general counsel to the mayor and the city council, as well as all city agencies.
"The result of the case speaks volumes," said Smith. "Prosecutors always have discretion on charging decisions, and this is a case in which there wasn't good prosecutorial discretion."
Amerian says he was just doing his job in putting Spears on trial.
Amerian maintains that, under the particular circumstances of her case, the decision to charge her with a misdemeanor amounted to standard operating procedure.
The no license charge against Spears stemmed from an Aug. 6, 2007, accident in which her car struck a parked car in the Studio City section of Los Angeles. A hit-and-run charge was filed but later dropped after the pop singer paid an undisclosed amount of money to the other motorist as part of a civil settlement. Spears was able to do this because California law allows defendants to reach civil settlements in exchange for getting hit-and-run charges dismissed.
Although the hit-and-run charge was dropped, the Los Angeles city attorney's office still had to decide how to handle the fact that Spears, who has a Beverly Hills address and had identified herself as a California resident in a family law case, was driving with a Louisiana license.
Amerian portrays his decision to prosecute Spears with a misdemeanor as one in which he had no real choice.
"Whenever someone commits a hit-and-run and is also violating the driver's license law at the same time, the city attorney's office always pursues a misdemeanor, not an infraction," said Amerian.
Asked to explain standard operating procedure in the office of Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, his spokesman told ABC News that Amerian's decision to pursue a misdemeanor charge against Spears amounted to the "general" policy.
"It is the general policy of the city attorney's office to file a VC12500 (no license) violation as a misdemeanor charge, rather than an infraction, in cases where a misdemeanor hit-and-run case is also being filed by the office," said Delgadillo spokesman Nick Velasquez.
Velasquez quickly added, however, that charging decisions are not automatic. They must always be based on the particular facts of the case.
Spears got off of the misdemeanor charge in October when the jury, which was split 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal, threw up its hands, saying it could not agree on whether Spears was a resident of California and, therefore, required to have a California license to drive in the Golden State.
Amerian said he is not surprised by Weiss's decision to inject the Spears case into the city attorney's race, but stands by his charging decision.
"The jury had made up their mind that they were going to let her go," said Amerian. "Even if I could have anticipated that jurors were going to acquit her in the hopes that they could meet her, my first and foremost obligation as a prosecutor is to make sure that justice is done and doing justice requires we treat everybody fairly."