Drug possession, lying to investigators, driving while intoxicated, shoplifting – the list of offenses is also a long one. When arrested, are celebrities held to the same standards of justice as the rest of us, or do they receive special treatment in the legal system? If convicted how, do their sentences compare to those of a majority of those in our justice system?
In this paper, I argue that celebrity status does give a defendant a number of major advantages, the most important being that they can hire the kind of legal representation that the average person could never afford. Where most people arrested for DWI, drug possession, public indecency or shoplifting have to use a public defender, go into debt to hire a lawyer or accept whatever deal prosecutors offer, rich people can afford the best defense that money can buy. Their careers may even benefit from the publicity surrounding their cases.
The difference is not just because of their celebrity status, but also because celebrities have wealth. In many ways celebrities get special treatment by police, prosecutors and judges. While young rappers or sex stars may have their careers enhanced by publicity, others 2. have been able to use their star status to keep proceedings and the terms of settlements private or to escape jail time they otherwise might have had to serve. In general, the special treatment celebrities get receive, make it less likely that they will be convicted of a major offenses or jailed.
One exception to their advantage may be, at least in some cases, when it comes to sentencing. There celebrities sometimes receive harsher terms as judges seek to make examples of them. It seems that one of the most visible complaints about a double standard in the criminal justice system is related to race and the socio-economic status of those who are convicted. For example, while they make up a small percentage of the nation’s population, poor African-American and Latino-American males make up a disproportionately large part of the nation’s prison population.
Perhaps for this reason when rich, mostly light skinned female stars are arrested, their treatment is held up for special scrutiny. Typical of this complaint is an unsigned online “Judiciary Report” (August 2007) that discusses the light treatment for vehicular and drug or alcohol incidents involving Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Ritchie, Paris Hilton and Brittany Spears. The author complains of these, “… public menaces (are) loose on the streets, behind the wheel, on the road where law-abiding citizens drive” and accurately notes that their behavior could result in serious injury or even death.