Phelps enters guilty plea to driving while impaired

State drops other charges as part of plea agreement

December 30, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY - Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps pleaded guilty yesterday to driving while impaired, part of a plea arrangement in which prosecutors agreed to drop a more serious charge stemming from his drunken-driving arrest last month.

Under the bargain, Phelps was granted probation before judgment, a ruling that will wipe his record clean if he stays out of trouble for the next 18 months. The probation will be monitored by the Wicomico County state's attorney and will end a day before Phelps' 21st birthday.

After a 45-minute District Court hearing, the 19-year-old swimming star from Rodgers Forge faced a crowd of more than 100 reporters, photographers, spectators and autograph-seeking fans outside the Eastern Shore courthouse. He paused briefly before the bank of microphones, vowing to continue using his celebrity to discourage other teenagers from drinking and driving.

"These past few months have been extremely hard," Phelps said. "I'm looking forward to getting back in the water and back to a normal routine. I have already learned from this. I will pass this along to others who might even be considering doing the same thing."

As a part of his probation, Phelps has agreed to speak to students at three Wicomico County schools and to be a featured speaker at a "Healthy U" fitness and health rally at Arthur W. Perdue Stadium in Salisbury next summer.

"I recognize the seriousness of this mistake," Phelps told Judge Lloyd O. Whitehead. "It's wrong to drink when you're underage. It's wrong to get behind a wheel no matter how old you are."

Phelps, who wore a black suit, white shirt and gold silk tie, was ordered to pay $305 in fines and court costs.

He could have received a maximum of a year in jail, a $1,000 fine and 12 points on his driver's license for driving under the influence of alcohol, the state's more serious drunken-driving charge. That charge was dropped.

The charge to which Phelps pleaded guilty, driving while impaired, could have brought a 60-day jail term, a $500 fine and eight points.

He also had been charged with violation of a license restriction (usually filed against a driver younger than 21 who has been drinking) and failure to obey a stop sign. Those two charges were dropped.

Phelps' sentence "is not out of line with other first-time offenders who blow a 0.8 [percent] blood-alcohol level," said State's Attorney Davis R. Ruark. "It's in keeping with other cases. The blood-alcohol level was right on the edge between DUI and impaired. We gave him the benefit of the doubt."

Ruark read a statement of facts before the sentencing that described how Phelps, driving a 2005 Land Rover, nearly hit a state police cruiser and ran a stop sign near Salisbury University, a few blocks from an off-campus apartment complex known as "the zoo," which is frequented by many students for its late-night party scene.

Phelps, who failed several field sobriety tests, quickly identified himself but initially told police he had not been drinking. Later, Phelps admitted he had been drinking and said, "I know, I'm sorry [for lying]. I was just scared because I have a lot to lose."

He was released after signing traffic citations, and his vehicle was driven by a friend who had not been drinking, police said.

Defense attorneys Steven Allen and James V. Anthenelli outlined a detailed record of community service that Phelps has undertaken over the past five years as he came to prominence as an athlete. One letter was from Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., a former judge.

The lawyers presented 22 letters lauding Phelps' service to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Harford County and in Baltimore schools, where he is a mentor.

Baltimore Oriole B.J. Surhoff also wrote a letter of support, noting Phelps's work with Pathfinders for Autism, a private foundation created by the veteran outfielder, who has an autistic child.

Phelps drew international acclaim when he won six gold and two bronze medals during the Summer Games in Athens. He narrowly missed tying American swimmer Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in 1972.

Phelps has enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he will begin attending classes in a few weeks.

The Towson High School graduate has begun training for the 2008 Olympics with his swimming coach, Bob Bowman, the new men's swimming coach at Michigan.

Phelps' attorneys said he has not been dropped by any of the companies, including Speedo, that signed him to endorsement contracts after the Olympics.

Phelps' arrest focused the national media spotlight on Salisbury, a city of about 22,000 that bills itself as the "Crossroads of Delmarva."

Yesterday, with television satellite trucks parked outside, seating in the 70-seat second-floor courtroom was at a premium. Shortly before the hearing, a line formed behind the security checkpoint at the main entrance to the three-story state office building that houses the District Court and other agencies.

"We have a lot of people here today, probably a lot of them visitors," Whitehead said. "But we also have a normal court docket," said Whitehead, who nodded toward Phelps and said, "Welcome to Salisbury."

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