Presumed Guilt and the Media

DUI Court

It kind of all started with Rodney King—a video showing a man beaten nearly senseless by the police, and yet a jury let them off. Since then, the public has practically demanded to be the 13th member of the jury in any high-profile criminal case. But how is that working for us?

Mistrust of the system leads to “Trial by Media”

Five years after the Rodney King debacle, 6-year-old JonBenét Ramsey was reported missing by her mother to police. What ensued was a lengthy investigation where scrutiny against the parents was so intense that the police barely even considered any other options.

This tactic by the police added fuel to the media frenzy against JonBenét’s parents, culminating with a mock trial by Geraldo Rivera that convicted Patsy Ramsey on national television with the death of her own daughter. Even after DNA evidence cleared every family member, the media can never erase the damage they caused the Ramsey family. Patsy died of cancer before the Boulder police cleared her name.

Elizabeth Smart

In the Elizabeth Smart abduction, Nancy Grace, from her bully pulpit at CNN pronounced ex-con and handyman Richard Ricci guilty without any evidence other than the circumstances of his criminal record and the work he performed on the Smart home. She directly encouraged the Salt Lake City police to arrest Mr. Ricci. Unfortunately, shortly after his arrest, he died in jail. Ms. Grace offered no apology for her actions since Richard Ricci was “obviously a bad person.”

Other media outlets went ever further, accusing Elizabeth’s father and brother as the guilty parties in her kidnapping and murder on national television. They proclaimed that if the system were working properly, the two would be on death row. Ironically this segment aired at about the same time as Elizabeth was found alive with her actual abductors.

Could this happen to you?

These are obviously high profile, extreme cases, but do they portend events to come in your life? Could you be involved such a high profile case? And how would you deal with people assuming you were guilty before you have even had a trial? Welcome to the modern DUI charge.

You may have had only one beer or even none at all, yet based on the disposition of the officer, you are arrested for DUI. You might even be the victim of quotas that some agencies are finally admitting to, where an officer feels pressure to make a certain number of arrests during his or her shift.

Regardless, you know you are innocent—innocent until proven guilty. Right?

Fortunately, the courts still operate that way. However, the media, with encouragement from powerful groups like Mothers Against Drinking and Driving (MADD) will present your arrest with the foregone conclusion that you are guilty.

Is an arrest a pronouncement of guilt?

In their publications and on their website MADD consistently sides with the police and insists that an arrest is sufficient damning evidence to convict you. They even support efforts to have any public official resign after an arrest. They insist that those who beat their charge only do so with the help of unscrupulous DUI attorneys who manipulate the system on behalf of their clients.

However, it isn’t just high profile individuals that are victimized by this unwritten policy. Martin Bills was arrested in Nashville by a department that has since admitted setting quotas. When he arrived at the station, a blood test showed 0% of any controlled substance; but the damage was done. According to in Nashville,

His employer suspended him, and the U.S. Navy told him his plans to enlist would have to wait. “It (has) put my life on hold for about three weeks now,” Bills said. “I can’t go to work. I can’t make money.”

Demonizing drunk drivers has become an acceptable form of hate speech in recent years. Taken at face value, this is not a good trend, especially since those who engage in such behavior now feel comfortable directing it at those who have only been arrested for DUI and have yet to be convicted.

Saving your rights

Millions of dollars are donated to anti-drinking-and-driving causes every year. Most of these organizations have adopted a win-at-all-cost strategy that is willing to overlook basic rights and even civility in deference to their mission.

Since the courts still function under rule of law, your DUI attorney will be able to help you beat your charge if the prosecution does not have sufficient evidence to convict you. However, to stem the tide of public opinion away from “grieving mothers” to support of human rights will be a difficult task.

In no way should anyone minimize the loss of anyone who has been victimized by a drunk driver, and such an approach would be wrong. However, as Candice Lightner, the founder of MADD points out, the focus should be on the drunk and not the drinker. And if society really wants to address the problem properly, then it needs to focus on those who have been legally convicted and not just charged. Across the country, people like Martin Bills (above) are having their lives ruined by a DUI charge even though the charge may be dropped or overturned.

Furthermore, allowing and encouraging the media to function as the police, judge, jury, and executioner disrespects the courts and due process. Your trial by media won’t be anywhere near as fair as a court of law.

HLN may not report on your DUI charge, but your local paper will. It is hard to predict how your life will be changed by your charge. Even if you are found not-guilty, trial by media never forgets. Many will still see you as guilty. This is a trend we must end.

This post was submitted by a guest writer. This may or may not reflect the ideas or opinions of the attorneys of Action Legal Group.

Comments are closed.