Did Sentencing Guidelines Fail in Donte Stallworth Case?

Aug 28, 2009

The criminal courts may not have gotten it right, but one could argue that the National Football League did.
The NFL announced last week that it was suspending Donte Stallworth of the Cleveland Browns for one year in the wake of an accident, where, behind the wheel of his 2005 Bentley Continental GT, he struck and killed Mario Reyes on March 14, 2009 in Miami Beach, Florida.
Stallworth had a blood alcohol level of .126, well above the Florida legal limit of .08. The police report stated that Reyes was not in a crosswalk and that Stallworth was estimated to have been driving at 50 mph in a 40 mph zone. On April 1, prosecutors charged Stallworth with DUI manslaughter and DUI. The manslaughter charged carried a maximum prison sentence of 15 years, while the DUI charge carried a maximum prison sentence of six months along with fines and community service. Stallworth surrendered to police on April 2 and was released on $200,000 bail.
In June, Stallworth agreed on a financial settlement with Reyes’s family and a plea agreement with the state. After pleading guilty, Stallworth was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 1000 hours of community service, 2 years of house arrest, 8 years of probation, and a lifetime suspension of his driver’s license. Stallworth was released from jail on July 16 after serving 24 days of the 30 day sentence. Under the terms of his house arrest, Stallworth was only allowed to leave his residence for work, community service, or other court approved activities. On August 11, a judge ruled that Stallworth would be allowed to leave his home five days a week to train with a coach.
The sentence has been a major topic of discussion for the media, the public, and members of the legal profession. Florida has a Criminal Punishment Scoresheet that is meant to provide equity in sentencing. The scoresheet points to a sentence of 124.5 months for a defendant with no prior criminal record. Florida has some of the harshest punishment for DUI manslaughter and judges rarely depart from the scoresheet’s sentencing recommendations. Many point to this sentence as simply another case of a rich celebrity getting off easily.
But Stallworth’s success in pleading to a light sentence probably likely has less to do with his celebrity status than with his financial status. John Collins Jr., a Florida criminal defense attorney, believes that Stallworth’s sentence is based 100 percent on his ability to come to a settlement with Reyes family. Stallworth would not have been able to reach such a favorable plea agreement without the family’s cooperation.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle told the Miami Herald, “He’s being punished appropriately. This is what the family wanted.” Collins does not fault Stallworth, saying that he has “every right to get the best deal.” He would like to see judges have absolute discretion with no mandatory minimums because the sentencing guidelines that were intended to provide equity have failed.
Many members of the media have lashed out at the sentence. Michael Mayo of the South Florida Sun Sentinel said that the case is a “troubling lesson that those who are able to write a big check to a grieving family can influence their criminal punishment.” Nicole Brochu of the Sun Sentinel wrote, “The only message the ‘closure’ in this case sends is that wealthy, privileged people can do whatever the hell they want, pay a fraction of what the rest of us would for the same offense and trot right back onto the football field.”
The outcomes of wealthy celebrities’ criminal cases will always be lightning rods for controversy in our society. Whether the sentence given to Stallworth was right or wrong will be a matter of personal opinion.
There seemed to be little doubt what NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s opinion was as evidenced by the letter he wrote to Stallworth in announcing the suspension.
“(G)uilt or innocence as a matter of criminal law is not the same as a violation of NFL policies,” he wrote.
“Your conduct endangered yourself and others, leading to the death of an innocent man.”


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