Tiger Woods’ Auto Crash: The Relevance Of Social Status To Unequal Treatment By Police

By now, you have probably heard or read the news accounts of Tiger Woods‘ bizarre automobile accident.  As reported in an article today by Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports, Woods was injured in an automobile accident in the wee hours of the morning on November 27, 2009.  According to Wetzel’s article, Woods’ car crash did more than just wreck the golf pro’s car (it is reported to have sustained $8,000 in damages).  The incident crashed Woods’ gated world of privilege and notorious privacy.

According to a USA Today article, Woods and his wife were expected to speak with police today, after shooing the police away from their gated community on two prior occasions.  However, MSNBC is now reporting that Woods canceled the interview with the police for a third time.

As Wetzel described it in his Yahoo article, “The Florida Highway Patrol is being treated like nearly everyone else seeking a private word with Woods through the years:  No way, no how, no comment.”

The circumstances surrounding Tiger Woods’ car crash are strange, to say the least.  And, whether right or wrong, Woods’ post-accident refusal to speak with police further shadows this already murky situation.  To be sure, if Tiger Woods believes he is being investigated for criminal misconduct in connection with the accident, he has the right to request counsel.  If arrested, he has the right to remain silent.  To my knowledge, however, Woods has not invoked his right to counsel, has not spoken to law enforcement through his counsel, and at this point, is only being asked to provide his driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance.  Rather than cooperate with law enforcement, Woods has chosen to deliver a prepared statement on his website, which reads:

“As you all know, I had a single-car accident earlier this week, and sustained some injuries. I have some cuts, bruising and right now I’m pretty sore.
This situation is my fault, and it’s obviously embarrassing to my family and me. I’m human and I’m not perfect. I will certainly make sure this doesn’t happen again.

This is a private matter and I want to keep it that way. Although I understand there is curiosity, the many false, unfounded and malicious rumors that are currently circulating about my family and me are irresponsible.

The only person responsible for the accident is me. My wife, Elin, acted courageously when she saw I was hurt and in trouble. She was the first person to help me. Any other assertion is absolutely false.

This incident has been stressful and very difficult for Elin, our family and me. I appreciate all the concern and well wishes that we have received. But, I would also ask for some understanding that my family and I deserve some privacy no matter how intrusive some people can be.”

Deserves?  Really?  For 12 years, I have worked on civil rights cases of one kind or another.  In cases involving allegations of police misconduct, my clients were generally poor and charged with relatively minor offenses.  Some were white; some were not.  Often, just like in Woods’ case, my clients’ friends and family were involved in the case, either as co-plaintiffs or witnesses.

What irritates me about Woods’ case is the complete class-based double standard at work.  By some accounts, Tiger Woods is the wealthiest sports celebrity in the world.  The fact that he has canceled not one, not two, but three meetings with police to discuss the accident – and, furthermore, that the police seem to slink away like scolded dogs when he cancels – is astonishing.  One of my clients once tried this tactic with the police from the privacy of his own property only to find himself beaten and tased multiple times, along with several members of his family. Recently, a 10 year old Arkansan girl was tased for refusing her mother’s command to take a shower.  You can read Jonathan Turley‘s excellent article about that outrageous case here.  Civil rights, you say?  P’shaw.

Of course, my client and the 10-year old Arkansan girl lacked two things that Tiger Woods has plenty of – money and prestige.  This begs an age-old question:  Does money and prestige equal preferential treatment?  As George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, “All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”  Is that the principle that we are witnessing in Woods’ case?

Florida law states:  “Whoever shall resist, obstruct, or oppose any officer…in the execution of legal process or in the lawful execution of any legal duty, without offering or doing violence to the person of the officer, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree.”  In other words, under Florida law, one can be guilty of obstruction whether or not their resistance rises to the level of actual violence against a police officer.

I have nothing against Tiger Woods.  As a matter of fact, before this incident, I would not have imagined ever blogging about Tiger Woods.  Moreover, having handled police misconduct cases over the years, I can say with complete sincerity that I am no fan of the police.  However, Woods needs to do what everyone else in the U.S. must do under similar circumstances.  He needs to cooperate with the police as they attempt to execute their duties, and if this is a minor incident with no irregularities, put the unfortunate event behind him.  His method of handling the situation only makes the case more troubling, and it actually fuels greater speculation and invasion of his and his family’s privacy.

Update:  Police To Continue Woods Investigation Without Input

This morning, CNN is reporting that Florida police will continue to investigate the details of Tiger Woods’ auto accident without input from Woods.  CNN’s Susan Candiotti and Ross Levitt write:

“Under Florida law, Woods must show his license, registration and proof of insurance to police, but is not obligated to give a statement on the crash. His attorney Mark NeJame handed over the required documents to the troopers Sunday at Woods’ home, Montes said.  [Montes is a Sgt. with the Florida Highway Patrol.]

NeJame told CNN he stood by Woods’ statement and had no further comment.

‘If we’re unable to meet with him, we’ll move on with our investigation,’ Montes said. But she called the delays ‘very unusual, because it’s such a minor accident’.”

Update:  Woods Skips Own Tournament; Cited And Fined For ‘Careless Driving’

According to Greg Ferguson of the Associated Press, Tiger Woods will skip his own tournament, the Chevron World Challenge.  Following a statement posted by Woods on his website, and the release of a neighbor’s 911 telephone call, questions continue to linger about the auto accident that took place in the early morning hours of November 27, 2009.  As Ferguson points out in his article:

Still, even the release of the 911 tape and Woods’ statement failed to answer several basic questions about the accident:

– Where he was going at that time of the night?

– How did he lose control of his SUV when it wasn’t going fast enough to deploy airbags?

– Why were both rear windows of the Cadillac Escalade smashed?

– If it was a careless mistake, why not speak to state troopers trying to wrap the investigation?

As Woods canceled his appearance at his own tournament, Florida authorities reported that Woods will be cited for “careless driving,” fined $164, and will receive 4 points against his driver’s license.  No further criminal charges or investigation will occur.  A previous news report indicated that a search warrant was sought for Woods’ medical records, but investigators now say that insufficient evidence exists to issue such a warrant.

“Careless driving” is a citable offense under Florida law.  Florida Statutes 316.1925, subdiv. 1 states:

Any person operating a vehicle upon the streets or highways within the state shall drive the same in a careful and prudent manner, having regard for the width, grade, curves, corners, traffic, and all other attendant circumstances, so as not to endanger the life, limb, or property of any person. Failure to drive in such manner shall constitute careless driving and a violation of statute.

Because law enforcement appears ready to let the matter drop, the case appears to be over from a purely legal standpoint.  However, it remains doubtful that the incident will be so quickly forgotten, regardless how much Woods may want it to be.

You can link to the Ferguson article here, reprinted in the Jacksonville Daily News.  You can link to an article discussing the charges against Woods here, as reported in the New York Times.

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