Charging Phelps


Like Jacob Sullum, I agree with most of Kathleen Parker's column on Michael Phelps and marijuana prohibition. But this part, about Richland County, South Carolina Sheriff Leon Lott I think comes up a bit short:

Lott, meanwhile, is threatening action against Phelps because … he has to. Widely respected and admired as a "good guy" who came up through the ranks, Lott is in a jam. Not one to sweat the small stuff, he nevertheless has said that he'll charge Phelps with a crime if he determines that the 14-time gold-medal winner did, in fact, smoke pot in his county.

The sheriff's job will be made both easier and tougher by evidence that includes a photograph of Phelps with his face buried in a smoke-filled tube and what Lott has called a "partial confession." Phelps has said that the photo is legit. The only missing link, apparently, is the exact location of the party.

What's tough is that Lott probably doesn't want to press charges because it's a waste of time and resources. He's got much bigger fish to fry, but several recent drug-related crimes—including at least two high-profile murders—have captured community attention.

And the law is the law.

Parker gives Lott too much credit. It's easy to say "the law is the law," but that ignores the reality that there are far more lawbreakers than there are resources to arrest and charge them all. 

So law enforcement officials have all sorts of discretion. It's precisely because Lott has limited resources and more important crimes to investigate that he could have blown this thing off. The county would likely spend thousands just providing security and logistics for Phelps' court appearances. 

Perhaps I overlooked something, but I've followed the case pretty closely, and I haven't sensed any public pressure in the direction of arresting and charging Phelps. In fact, the first I heard of the idea came yesterday, when Lott himself volunteered the possibility. Even if Lott does arrest Phelps, the local prosecutor would still have the discretion to turn down the case and spend his resources prosecuting crimes that actually affect the public safety.

On the other hand, the spectacle of seeing a world class athlete like Phelps frog-marched in handcuffs, tried, and given a few days in the county jail might do wonders toward enlightening the public to the fact that the most dangerous thing about marijuana doesn't come from smoking it, but from what the government will to you if it catches you.