Sheriff Lee Baca’s decision to let Paris Hilton out of jail after she served only three days of a planned 23-day stay sparked outrage Thursday, prompting an emergency court hearing today that could send the hotel heiress back behind bars.
Infuriated prosecutors asserted Thursday that Hilton had received special treatment from the Sheriff’s Department, which they accused of contempt of court. The judge who sentenced Hilton ordered her back into court to consider whether the department acted improperly by allowing her to serve the rest of her sentence at home while wearing an ankle monitor.
“My understanding is she will be brought in a sheriff’s vehicle from her home,” said Allan Parachini, a Los Angeles County Superior Court spokesman.
Hilton’s brief jail stay came after both the judge and sheriff had said she would serve more substantial jail time.
Superior Court Judge Michael T. Sauer sentenced Hilton to 45 days in jail after the 26-year-old multimillionaire repeatedly violated her probation on alcohol-related reckless driving charges by driving on a suspended license. Sauer had admonished Hilton for her actions and said she must serve the full term in the county jail.
Baca, who runs the jail system, had said he was fully prepared to enforce what legal experts described as a tough sentence. He declared that Hilton would be treated like any other inmate, warned her to take her incarceration seriously and said with standard credit for good behavior she would spend 23 days in jail, not a moment less.
Instead, sheriff’s officials announced Thursday that an undisclosed medical condition led them to reassign Hilton to electronic monitoring, despite Sauer’s specifically barring that option. Baca strongly denied that Hilton had received any preferential treatment and said she had served about the same time in jail as others sentenced for similar crimes.
To the displeasure of prosecutors and the judge, Hilton returned to her Hollywood Hills home, where she was met by family and an assortment of gourmet cupcakes.
“If law enforcement officials are to enjoy the respect of those we are charged with protecting, we cannot tolerate a two-tiered jail system where the rich and powerful receive special treatment,” Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo said.
A spokesman for Sauer said the judge disagreed with letting Hilton out and told sheriff’s officials that her release “did not concur” with his sentence.
Two members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which oversees funding for the Sheriff’s Department, called for a full report within the week from Baca on what led to Hilton’s release. County officials said they received hundreds of angry phone calls and e-mails from constituents.
“It sends a strong message to our youth that you can flout the law if you have money and fame,” Supervisor Mike Antonovich said. “Where is the fairness?”
Baca defended Hilton’s release, saying, “The minute I was informed by the doctors about her medical condition, I realized the system was not able to respond effectively to these problems.”
He said that three days behind bars was more than most defendants charged with a similar crime -- violating probation by driving with a suspended license -- would receive.
Baca, whose jails treat tens of thousands of sick and mentally ill inmates each year, said no favoritism was involved.
“We did what is best and what is justice,” Baca said. “Some people have an attitude that she was not punished enough.”
Steve Whitmore, Baca’s spokesman, said the sheriff made the decision well aware “that he was going to be criticized from every avenue.”
The decision, Whitmore said, was made after “extensive consultation with medical personnel at the jail, her doctors, command staff at the jail, sheriff’s command staff.”
Whitmore said privacy issues precluded him from releasing details about Hilton’s condition.
Hilton, through her attorney Richard Hutton, issued a statement in which she thanked the Sheriff’s Department for “treating me fairly and professionally.”
Although Hilton has become a lightning rod for many who see inequities in the justice system, the reality is more complicated.
Because of overcrowding in Los Angeles County jails, release criteria now call for female offenders to be freed after serving 10% of their projected sentence. So for an inmate who, like Hilton, was sentenced to 45 days, serving no more than four days would be the norm. (There are no statistics on how much time probation violators serve in jail.)
But in Hilton’s case, Sauer issued specific instructions for a longer sentence: no private jail, no electronic monitoring, no early release.
Her release despite the judge’s objections highlights a long-standing fight between the Sheriff’s Department and the courts over time actually served.
Regardless of what the judge said, time actually served by county inmates is still determined by the sheriff, who is allowed to release them early under federal orders to reduce crowded conditions.
Since mid-2002, when Baca shut down thousands of jail beds in the midst of a county budget crisis, more than 200,000 inmates have gone home after serving only fractions of their sentences. In addition, Baca has the ability to give “compassionate releases” to misdemeanor offenders.
Prosecutors on Thursday strongly criticized Baca’s handling of Hilton’s release.
Assistant City Atty. Dan Jefferies said the reason given for Hilton’s release made the case unusual and raised questions about special treatment. He said that releasing inmates because of overcrowding was common but that in his 25 years as a prosecutor, he could remember only two or three instances when people were let go early for medical reasons. In each case, he said, the individual was extremely ill.
Delgadillo, his boss, agreed: “Los Angeles County jail medical facilities are well-equipped to deal with medical situations involving inmates.”
He added that if Hilton’s “medical condition truly warranted a change in her circumstances,” her attorney “should have filed an emergency application with the court and provided my office with the opportunity to respond.”
At Hilton’s home, on narrow, winding Kings Road in West Hollywood, several dozen paparazzi camped out, despite irate neighbors chiding journalists for leaning against driveway gates.
In addition to visits from Hilton’s parents and her attorney, several food deliveries arrived: six cases of organic gourmet dog food, topped by an extravagant fresh fruit basket, and an order from a Beverly Hills bakery.
“She hasn’t eaten well while she’s been away,” said deliveryman Anthony Crisafulli.
TV vans and reporters’ cars, meanwhile, lined the streets for blocks near the home.
One inconvenienced neighbor, Anne Goursaud, complained about the helicopters that had been buzzing overhead.
“I think the whole world has descended on our neighborhood,” said Goursaud, a film editor and director who has lived in the neighborhood for 24 years. “The insanity of this. What is my life going to be like for the next 40 days? It’s like the age of superficiality.”
Times staff writers Tami Abdollah, Martha Groves, Stuart Pfeifer, Richard Winton, Francisco Vara-Orta, Maura Dolan, John Spano, Patrick McGreevy, Stuart Silverstein and Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.