Passenger McNair charged under DUI law

Though not driver, Ravens QB runs afoul of Tennessee statute

May 11, 2007|By JAMISON HENSLEY | JAMISON HENSLEY,SUN REPORTER

Ravens quarterback Steve McNair was arrested late Wednesday in Nashville, Tenn., on a charge of driving under the influence, even though he wasn't the one driving.

McNair was charged with a little-known Tennessee misdemeanor offense, commonly referred to as "DUI by consent," which prohibits a vehicle owner from letting the vehicle be driven by someone who is inebriated.

Police pulled over McNair's 2003 silver Dodge pickup just before midnight for speeding about a mile from the quarterback's Nashville home and arrested the driver, who was identified as McNair's brother-in-law, after he failed a field sobriety test.

McNair was then charged under a statute that has been on the books in Tennessee for more than 50 years, but isn't widely known in the area.

"I was trying to act responsibly," McNair said in a statement released by the team.

McNair could face punishment by the NFL under the league's stringent personal conduct policy, which has become a point of emphasis with commissioner Roger Goodell. Any violation - whether it's a felony or misdemeanor - can result in action by the league.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said it was too early to determine whether McNair would be subject to league discipline.

"We will look into it," Aiello said.

This is the second DUI arrest for McNair, who guided the Ravens to a 13-3 record in his first season with the team.

In May 2003, McNair was arrested in Nashville on charges of driving under the influence and illegal gun possession. The charges were dismissed after a judge threw out the evidence, stating police did not have sufficient reason to pull him over.

"I have to go through the court process now and I understand that," said McNair, who played from 1995 to 2005 with the Tennessee Titans. "I was planning to be in Baltimore for most of the remainder of this month to work out with my teammates, and anticipate that I will be doing that."

McNair's vehicle, which was being driven by 31-year-old Jamie Cartwright, was stopped at 11:53 p.m. Wednesday after police clocked it at 45 mph in a 35-mph zone five miles southwest of downtown Nashville. The officer detected an odor of alcohol and saw that Cartwright's eyes were red and glassy, according to police.

According to the police report, Cartwright said he drank at least two beers earlier in the evening. He then took a field sobriety test, which indicated impairment. Cartwright, whom police said refused to take a Breathalyzer test because he wanted to help McNair stay out of trouble, was arrested on DUI charges along with McNair.

Under Tennessee law, it doesn't matter if McNair was drinking, only if the driver was impaired. If convicted, McNair faces a maximum sentence of 11 months, 29 days in jail.

Nashville police have charged 43 people, including McNair, with violating the "DUI by consent" statute this year.

McNair and Cartwright were taken downtown, from where McNair was later released.

Wearing a brown T-shirt and jeans, McNair did not talk to a television cameraman when leaving the police station. He was accompanied by a friend, nightclub owner Robert "Big Daddy" Gaddy, who told a Nashville television station that McNair had done nothing wrong.

"Steve was not arrested for drinking or driving the car irresponsibly," Ravens president Dick Cass said. "There is a court process that will now take place and Steve will participate in these procedures."

Jim Todd, a Nashville-based defense attorney and a former prosecutor, said the state must prove that McNair was in custody or control of the vehicle and that he knowingly turned the keys over to someone who was intoxicated.

"Usually, the knowingly part is the difficult part to prove," Todd said. "If his brother-in-law was just over the legal limit, Mr. McNair's lawyers could have a good argument that he didn't knowingly do anything."

Todd said that in such cases, it's rare for an officer not to charge the person in McNair's position. But in practice, he said, such charges are usually pleaded down severely or dismissed.

He said people are generally shocked when charged with DUI by consent.

"In fact, they usually think they've done the right thing by turning their keys over," he said.

The "DUI by consent" law sustained an early challenge before the state's Supreme Court in 1962. A man claimed he had been too intoxicated to know that he was turning his car over to an intoxicated friend, who subsequently killed a child. The court ruled that the man who turned over his car was criminally negligent.

The law can be applied to the owner of a vehicle whether the owner is in the vehicle or not during the DUI stop. It also can be applied to a passenger who does not own the car. The penalties for "DUI by consent" are as severe as those for DUI. Maryland does not have a "DUI by consent" law, though many other states do.

"It's not that unusual," said Steven Oberman, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based attorney who specializes in DUI defense. "You just don't hear about it a lot. It's a type of aiding and abetting a crime."

Oberman said that he handles four or five such cases a year and added that people are usually surprised to be charged with DUI by consent.

"Most people have no idea about this crime," he said. "It's a shame [that] it's not more highly publicized."

McNair is the second Raven to be charged with DUI in the past eight months. Return specialist B.J. Sams was arrested Oct. 3 after his car swerved and nearly struck another vehicle. He is scheduled to go to court next week.

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.

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