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After 13 months, Spears case fizzles

Not able to agree on whether the singer was driving without a valid license, the jury throws up its hands.

October 22, 2008|Harriet Ryan | Ryan is a Times staff writer.

She's been called a pop tart, a train wreck and a walking cautionary tale, but is Britney Spears a misdemeanant?

The jury is out. Literally.

After three days of deliberations, a dozen citizens threw up their hands Tuesday and said they could not agree on whether the oft-troubled entertainer was guilty of driving without a license during a fender bender last year. Ten jurors wanted to acquit. Two voted for conviction.

A prosecutor later said that in light of the jury split, he was dropping the case, but not his belief that Spears was guilty. Voicing a complaint common to those who prosecute famous defendants in matters big and small, Deputy City Atty. Michael Amerian said, "It just goes to show, I think, how difficult it is to convict any celebrity of a crime here in Los Angeles."

The grudging dismissal was a fitting conclusion to a 13-month legal battle that featured lofty principles, rock-bottom stakes and the complete absence of the woman at its center.

Spears, 26, did not set foot in Superior Court in Van Nuys during the trial. In court papers, her attorney wrote that the singer was "unable to participate meaningfully in this matter." Her father, Jamie, who has controlled her estate, finances and healthcare since shortly after her January hospitalization in a psychiatric ward, testified on her behalf, but he refused a request from her own lawyer that she take the stand.

"Britney doesn't like court," the lawyer, Michael Flanagan, shrugged.

The actual implications of the misdemeanor were minimal for both sides. A guilty plea would not have meant jail time or even points on Spears' driving record. And by the time the trial got underway, she had been licensed in California for more than a year.

"This is not the crime of the century," the prosecutor conceded in his summation.

The charge stemmed from an Aug. 6, 2007, accident in which Spears' sedan struck a parked car in Studio City. A hit-and-run charge was dropped after she reached a civil settlement with the other motorist. The license charge -- filed after investigators pulled her DMV records and found she was not licensed in California -- remained.

The only issue before jurors was whether Spears considered Los Angeles her true home -- "domicile" under the vehicle code -- and therefore needed a state license. Her defense argued that her native Louisiana was her real home. Her father testified that she carried a Louisiana license at the time of the accident because she planned to return there as soon as child custody arrangements allowed.

The city attorney's office routinely prosecutes people for driving without a license -- nearly 3,700 this year alone. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the defendant accepts a guilty plea to the misdemeanor or to a traffic infraction. In other cases, the charge is dropped when a defendant obtains a valid license. A trial is virtually unheard of.

The prosecutor said he knew of no other defendants to go before a jury. Spears' attorney was more definitive.

"Nobody has ever gone to trial on it. Never," Flanagan said.

For both sides, the case became a matter of principle. Flanagan, one of the deans of the city's traffic law bar, said the government's treatment of Spears was beyond anything he had seen in his 38 years of practice. Other defendants got a traffic ticket and a fine, not a misdemeanor, he said.

"It was just wrong," he said.

For his part, the prosecutor suggested that it was Spears who sought special treatment. Amerian called her defense "bullying" and said that even public defenders were thanking him for not "caving." He denied that the prosecution had anything to do with his campaign for city attorney.

The prosecutor tried to settle the case in exchange for a guilty plea. Initially, he offered her 12 months' probation and a $150 fine and when her attorney objected to the probation, he said she could avoid probation by paying the maximum fine -- $1,000. Spears' attorney rejected that, saying that his client did not want "to buy her way out of probation."

The upshot was a five-day trial.

"It was multiple thousands of dollars that was wasted in this case," Flanagan said, adding that his own bill to Spears "is probably a world record" for a driving without a license case.

The foreman said that because the jury was in the dark about the events surrounding the charge -- the panelists were told only that Spears had been driving on the day in question -- they doubted the necessity of the trial.

"It's a natural reaction to feel it's a waste of time," said foreman Gary Moy, 45.

He voted for conviction and said others appeared swayed by Spears' fame.

"Many of the jurors have a celebrity complex," he said.

Asked at the close of a news conference if the case would make it hard for him to listen to Spears' music, Amerian said, "You mean harder than it was before?" He then apologized and said he had sympathy for "what she's gone through."

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harriet.ryan@latimes.com

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