For the last two years, I have taught a journalism class at USC. Most of my students are undergraduate sophomores, too young to drink, but not too young to seriously damage their reputation online.
Why? Because, as I tell them, the Internet is written in ink.
Here's a case example: In January 2013, Glendale police arrested Robert DeBrino, a retired New York City cop, on suspicion of driving under the influence. When officers found the movie producer in his motionless Corvette, his head was slumped to the side and his pants unzipped.
A witness, according to police reports and court records, said the then 61-year-old had been stumbling around his vehicle before getting inside and falling asleep.
DeBrino told the officers he had driven from nearby Glendale Studios, and admitted hitting a pole with the car as well as taking medication. The methadone and Adderall were properly prescribed, he said, taken for pain after being shot in the stomach and knee while on duty with the NYPD.
Though DeBrino tested negative for alcohol, Glendale police arrested him after he failed a field sobriety test, citing and releasing him a few hours later. About a day later, we wrote a story about the incident, complete with a Nick Nolte-esque mug shot.
Most of the time, that's the end for us. We have neither the time, the resources, nor the inclination to follow up on DUI cases. Frankly, we don't care, and we don't believe our readers do either.
Six months later, DeBrino's attorney gave me a call asking that the piece be taken down. Why? Because prosecutors had rejected the case — a fact we were able to confirm. The whole affair hadn't resulted even in a traffic citation, the lawyer pleaded, but the negative publicity falling on DeBrino had caused him shame and loss of work.
We updated the story to note no charges had been filed. However, under our long-standing policy, the story was not removed. We only put in additional information or note a correction. Again, we moved on.
Earlier this month, DeBrino's attorney sent a letter to the Los Angeles Times' big boss, Eddy Hartenstein, asking again the piece be taken down. This filtered down to me, as the publisher really has better things to do.
Trying to figure out what had changed, I reached out to DeBrino via his various legal advisers and assistants. It's a weird story.
DeBrino, in a phone conversation this week, says he wasn't guilty that night of anything except being tired. He had been up for more than 24 hours, something that explained his disheveled appearance. The case felt like a set up, he said, providing professional pain to match his physical ailments.
It's hard to say what causes what, but a check of IMDb shows the only movie on DeBrino's plate is a flick in preproduction called "Run Like the Devil," which is supposed to come out sometime this year. The prior listings, both in 2006, were for "Shut Up and Shoot" and a Vin Diesel vehicle called "Find Me Guilty."
As we reported when we updated the article a year ago, prosecutors declined the case. But on Jan. 21 of this year, one day prior to when the case would have expired due to the statute of limitations, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office decided to move on the charge.
Why? Because the initial blood test DeBrino submitted in 2013 had not been run for methadone, something he, in both court records and in our interview, acknowledged he took. Results of a second test, called a DRE Scan, were not received by Glendale police until Jan. 9 of this year, according to court records. After confirming the presence of methadone, prosecutors moved to file.
But on July 7, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Phillip Argento dismissed the case, stating that prosecutors and police had simply waited too long. The memories of a defense witness, the only one with first-hand knowledge of DeBrino's driving faculties that night besides DeBrino, had faded due to the passage of time, Argento ruled, prejudicing the case.
Since the delays were completely the fault of the government, he said, meaning the case could not move forward.
What's the lesson in all this? Well, don't get arrested. Also, if you're unjustly accused, you have to fight like hell to deal with the fallout from any publicity or public record attached to the incident.
From reading all the documents I could get my hands on, it looks like the Glendale police acted reasonably. DeBrino looked pretty messed up, admitting taking narcotics, and hit a pole with his car.
However, DeBrino never got the chance to defend himself, and as such, the case was properly dumped.
Will we ever know the full story? Probably not. But since the Internet is forever, the only thing to do is to try and provide more context. Hopefully I've done that, because I'm really ready to move on from this one.