- - Sunday, April 13, 2014


Chris Brown’s misdemeanor assault trial begins Thursday at D.C. Superior Court, only a few blocks from the White House, but a conviction there is the least of his concerns.

The recording artist could face up to four years in a California prison because a criminal charge in any jurisdiction could violate his probation, which was ordered by a Los Angeles judge in 2009 after Brown pleaded guilty to felony assault of singer and then-girlfriend Rihanna.

“He should have a legitimate concern that his probation could be revoked in his Los Angeles case,” said Jonathan Franklin, a prominent Los Angeles criminal defense attorney. “A person does not have to be found guilty of the new charge in order to trigger a probation violation hearing.

“A court can find that someone did not obey all laws during the term of their probation simply because they were arrested on new charges, and since the burden of proof is much lower in probation violation hearings, it is easier for the court to find that he has violated his probation terms,” Mr. Franklin said. “Furthermore, probation violation hearings are decided by the court. There is no jury to make ultimate determination of guilt or innocence.”

Brown’s probation stems from his felony assault conviction for striking Rihanna after a party just before the Grammy Awards. She suffered visible facial injuries and was hospitalized.

California Penal Code sections 240-245 cover assault and battery charges. Section 245(a)(4) states: Any person who commits an assault upon the person of another by any means of force likely to produce great bodily injury shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for two, three, or four years, or in a county jail for not exceeding one year, or by a fine not exceeding $10,000, or by both the fine and imprisonment.

The statute is what is known under California law as a “wobbler” offense, which means that an violator can be charged with a misdemeanor or felony offense.

Brown originally was offered 180 days of “straight-time” in jail, which could have ended his sentence, but he instead opted for five years probation, 1,400 hours of community labor and domestic violence counseling.

It is common for defense attorneys to advise their clients to take straight jail time because long probationary periods create substantial risk for violations that can ultimately lead to longer sentences.

“The court now has the legal authority to sentence Brown up to four years in state prison,” Mr. Franklin said. “If the court determines that he violated the terms of his probation, a specific sentence that may have been part of his plea deal could now be imposed.”

Brown was permitted to serve his probation in his home state of Virginia, but even before the recent D.C. incident, he came dangerously close to violating his probation.

In 2012, he reportedly was involved in an altercation in a New York nightclub that left San Antonio Spurs basketball star Tony Parker with a piece of glass in his eye, and last year, he allegedly punched rapper Frank Ocean in a West Hollywood parking lot.

D.C. Metropolitan Police arrested Brown last year after he and his bodyguard, Christopher Hollosy, became involved in an altercation with two men who tried to take a photograph with the singer in front of the W Hotel.

Both men are scheduled to be tried separately Thursday before D.C. Superior Court Judge Patricia Wynn.

Brown’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, who has represented many celebrities, has called the incident “the most investigated misdemeanor in history.”

But Mr. Franklin said the Brown case is not entirely unusual in terms of celebrity criminal cases.

“Certainly, being in trouble with the law is stressful to anyone, celebrity or not,” he said. “Unfortunately for Chris Brown, it’s becoming part of his persona. In the world of reality television, everyone tunes in to watch the courtroom drama unfold, just like they did with the O.J. Simpson case.

“The public has always been fascinated with the legal troubles of celebrities. The cult of celebrity is a very strong current in Hollywood. The public may perceive that Mr. Brown’s celebrity gives him an advantage that the average person does not have, but in reality, this is not usually the case,” he said. “Mr. Brown’s celebrity status can put pressure on the prosecutors and the court as they try to enforce justice blindly without regard to celebrity status. All of this occurs as the world watches and judges every move.”

Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is a legal analyst for The Washington Times.

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