In a different time and different place, Todd Marinovich’s drug arrest last week might have resulted in a different charge.
But as it is, Marinovich’s case brings to light the unusual way in which Orange County prosecutors apply the law to first-time drug offenders without a criminal record.
Using a penal code that was intended to punish offenders of prescription drug laws, the Orange County District Attorney’s office filed misdemeanor charges against Marinovich last Thursday.
Had Marinovich, USC’s quarterback the past two seasons, been arrested in Los Angeles County, he would have been charged with a felony or the case would have been dismissed.
In fact, in all counties other than Orange, cases involving possession of cocaine are filed under the health and safety code as a felony.
Orange County prosecutors have a longstanding policy to use the business and profession code for prescription medicines, which allows for a misdemeanor cocaine charge.
Marinovich, legal experts in Orange County said, did not receive preferential treatment.
“Nobody else does it like this that I know of,” said James Brott, a criminal defense attorney from Santa Ana. “It’s a catchall for the small amount of cocaine found. They (Orange County prosecutors) do this to prevent the stigma of a felony charge.”
Orange County’s policy is simple. Those arrested for possession of less than a gram of cocaine are charged with a misdemeanor. Those with more than a gram are charged with a felony.
Carl Ambrust, supervisor of narcotics in the Orange County District Attorney’s office, said the policy has been in effect for at least five years. But he said that his office is re-evaluating the guidelines because of the county’s growing drug problem.
Newport Beach police reported Marinovich possessed a gram of cocaine when he was arrested last week in Balboa. However, officials of the Orange County crime laboratory reweighed the substance and concluded that the weight was 445 milligrams, less than a half a gram.
Sandi Gibbons of the L.A. County District Attorney’s office said its cutoff for filing charges is 500 milligrams. She said L.A. prosecutors would dismiss charges for less than a half gram.
With an amount so close to a half gram, it is difficult to say what L.A. prosecutors would have done with Marinovich’s case.
“With that amount, we charge them,” said Alan Abajian, an L.A. County public defender. "(Orange County’s) is certainly a lot more lenient treatment than L.A. County.”
Orange County legal experts disagreed. Using the business and profession code is a legal loophole to give first-time offenders a break, Ambrust said.
“We look at this as part of the rehabilitation,” he said.
Myles A. Lenhoff, a public defender at Harbor Municipal Court in Newport Beach where Marinovich will be arraigned Feb. 11, said the former Capistrano Valley High football star is eligible for a drug-diversion program whether he is charged with a misdemeanor or felony.
“It really doesn’t matter what they charge in this case,” he said.
Instead of fighting the charge, Marinovich could qualify for drug diversion. If he did, he would attend rehabilitation classes and family counseling for a period, usually six months, determined by the court. Upon completion of the program, charges would be dismissed.
“We’re treating him exactly the way we treat everyone else,” Ambrust said. “The fact that he is a football star is unfortunate because I think he should be a role model, but we don’t treat him differently because of that.”