Tug-of-war over Hilton raises larger questions

Times Staff Writers

A sobbing Paris Hilton was shipped back to jail Friday, culminating a high-stakes legal showdown between a judge and Sheriff Lee Baca over who controls how long and where inmates serve their jail sentences.

The questions have loomed large over the Los Angeles County justice system for years as judges watched in frustration as the sheriff slashed the sentences they handed down, often by 90%, to alleviate chronic overcrowding in his jails.

Baca on Thursday allowed Hilton -- who he had promised would serve 23 days in jail -- to go home to West Hollywood to finish her time under house arrest after serving just three days behind bars for repeatedly violating probation.


He cited an undisclosed medical condition as the reason to allow the hotel heiress to switch from a tiny cell to home detention and electronic monitoring, noting that she had served the 10% of her sentence currently being served by most female inmates in the county.

But Friday, an irritated Judge Michael T. Sauer ordered Hilton back to court and said he alone had the power to decide how her sentence was served. Sauer criticized the Sheriff’s Department for letting Hilton out without his permission and remanded the 26-year-old multimillionaire -- who cried throughout the hearing -- back to jail.

As she was led out a side door by deputies, Hilton twisted back toward her parents. “Mom, Mom!” she cried. “It’s not right!”

In sending Hilton back to jail, Sauer appears to be the first judge to publicly challenge Baca’s authority to release inmates from jail short of their full court sentences.

Legal experts said Friday that the clash could have wide legal consequences.

“For decades, where [inmates] were housed and how they were housed was up to the Sheriff’s Department,” said Stan Goldman, a professor of criminal law and procedure at Loyola Law School. “Now that all may change, thanks to, of all people, Paris Hilton.”

Baca defended his decision to let Hilton leave jail and said he was concerned about how Sauer’s order -- if copied by other judges -- would affect the jail system.

“This has the strong potential to set up what will become an untenable precedent because of overcrowding in jail and the lack of adequate housing,” Baca said in an interview.

In the last five years, the Sheriff’s Department has released more than 200,000 inmates early, including some who ended up committing murders and other serious crimes when they otherwise would have been behind bars.

The releases were possible because of a nearly 20-year-old federal court order allowing the Los Angeles County sheriff to alleviate overcrowding by letting county offenders go home early.

A Times investigation found that many of those released early since 2002 had felony convictions and a history of violence and gang activity. Sixteen men released early were later charged with committing murders when they should have still been behind bars, and at least seven have been convicted in those slayings.

Behind closed doors, many judges have complained that the releases have circumvented the justice system -- essentially giving an elected sheriff the power to re-sentence offenders in violation of the constitutional separation of power. But few have been willing to speak publicly, and no one has challenged Baca on legal grounds.

On Friday, prosecutors argued that Baca overstepped his authority by releasing Hilton to home detention when Sauer had clearly ordered that she serve her sentence in jail.

“The court very clearly ordered she is not to be released early,” Assistant City Atty. Dan Jeffries said. “She is not to be released on electronic monitoring.... The sheriff was acting like judge, jury and executioner. It is the court’s job to determine what happens to Hilton.”

Sauer concurred, asking why Hilton’s medical issues could not be treated in the jail.

The judge then took the Sheriff’s Department to task. He said Undersheriff Larry Waldie had called him Wednesday afternoon to say that Hilton might have psychiatric problems and asked if the judge was adamant about her serving the full sentence in jail. Sauer responded that he was, telling Waldie that if the department wanted to release her, he should send medical documents to Sauer’s court for review. Sauer said he never received such documents. Waldie said the judge misrepresented their conversation and that it would be illegal for the department to fax Hilton’s medical records over.

Hilton was ushered into the courthouse Friday in a Sheriff’s Department cruiser, which picked her up at her West Hollywood home where paparazzi swarmed the car, capturing images of Hilton weeping as she was driven away.

Arriving shortly after 11 a.m., her cheeks flushed from crying, her face streaked with tears, she intermittently drew tissues to blow her nose and dab her eyes. After Sauer ordered her back to jail, she burst into tears, wailing in distress as deputies led her down the courthouse hallway.

Hilton was placed in a medical facility at the Twin Towers Jail in downtown Los Angeles.

Three hours later, Baca faced reporters during a tense news conference in which he reiterated that the jail system doesn’t have the capacity for low-risk offenders to serve even close to their full terms. (Hilton was sent to jail after repeatedly violating the terms of her probation on an alcohol-related reckless driving misdemeanor conviction.)

He also suggested that Sauer and the L.A. city attorney’s office were treating Hilton unfairly by forcing her back to jail.

“The criminal justice system should not create a football out of Miss Hilton,” Baca said. “The only thing I can detect as special treatment is her sentence. The special treatment appears to be her celebrity status.”

The sheriff did not detail Hilton’s medical issues but said her condition was “deteriorating” at the Century Regional Detention Center in Lynwood and that “this lady has severe problems.”

Baca said he met Wednesday with two county psychologists, who offered a grim diagnosis of Hilton. They said “she was not speaking coherently and that her condition was life-threatening,” he said. “My biggest concern was basically her deterioration. But at the same time it was a minor offense, so it made the option of home detention with an electronic bracelet much easier.”

Jeffries, the assistant city attorney, and legal experts said Friday that because Baca cited Hilton’s medical condition rather than overcrowding as the reason for her release, the sheriff did not have legal standing to let her go. It remains unclear whether the judge would have ordered Hilton back to jail had Baca cited overcrowding as the reason.

“It seems like the sheriff deciding independently to release Paris Hilton is an abuse of his authority,” said UCLA law professor Sharon Dolovich.

However, Baca routinely releases inmates early because of jail overcrowding, and judges have not challenged those actions. If L.A. County Superior Court ever challenged Baca on his larger early release policy, “it would be an interesting clash of judicial power,” Dolovich said.

Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein, Joe Mozingo, Greg Krikorian, Richard Winton and Stuart Pfeifer contributed to this report.