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franklin county times

Not all lessons learned in classroom

By By Sid Salter / Syndicated Columnist
August 11, 2004
After a fashion, the city of Oxford, the University of Mississippi and a powerful state lawmaker taught the Ole Miss student body a rather valuable lesson Monday in a courtroom.
The lesson? No matter who you are or how much power you wield, if you break the rules, you pay the price.
State Sen. Tommy Robertson arguably one of the half-dozen most powerful people in state government was found guilty of first offense DUI Monday in Lafayette County Justice Court.
A Republican from Moss Point who chairs the powerful tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, Robertson was fined $623.50 and ordered to complete an alcohol safety program.
Ole Miss campus police officers arrested Robertson, 48, last September after he failed a field sobriety test following an accident shortly after midnight on campus following the Ole Miss Texas Tech football game.
The Oxford Eagle reported that officers testified Monday that Robertson's eyes were red and dilated, his speech was slurred and that he had difficulty walking. They testified the lawmaker also tested positive for alcohol on a portable breath test, according to the report.
Robertson's defense attorney argued that procedural errors were made the campus police in the process of the arrest and that the legislator wasn't given a Breathalyzer test that he requested at the Lafayette County Detention Center.
But Robertson didn't contest the fact that he'd had a drink or two prior to the incident. After the verdict, there was no announcement by Robertson's defense attorney that he would appeal.
Clearly, there's a track record in this state of public officials acting so as to literally re-write the DUI defense laws. There's no doubt that the actions of some elected officials in defending DUI charges has weakened DUI enforcement.
Robertson vigorously defended himself against the charge in court and maintained his innocence, but he didn't seek to reinvent the wheel of DUI defense. Nor is it apparent that Robertson pulled all the strings at his disposal to avoid facing his day in court.
Let's face it. Robertson's chairmanship makes his friendship to Ole Miss, the city of Oxford and Lafayette County important. That's the political reality. The path of least resistance it would seem would have been a back room plea bargain to a lesser charge, a convenient loss of evidence or a simple case of one hand washing the other.
That type arrangement might have worked just fine had it not been for the Ole Miss student body watching the case intently to see the outcome.
Oxford is a town that offers students an active, festive social life. Stores downtown sell T-shirts that boast of the Ole Miss Rebels "never losing a party." As in Starkville or Hattiesburg or any college town, booze is part of the scene.
DUI enforcement in Oxford in recent years has been increasing, as it should. A alcohol-impaired student driving a vehicle from town back to campus went to prison for a time after being involved in a 2003 accident that claimed the life of a fellow student. Students remember that.
Tommy Robertson is an outstanding state legislator who made a mistake. It's a mistake that he can overcome. He's taking his punishment. That's a lesson to which college students can relate.
But had Robertson skated on a DUI charge being leveled frequently and without much mercy at college kids, it would have been difficult for Ole Miss or Oxford folks to talk to them with much moral authority about alcohol, responsibility and consequences.
Sid Salter is Perspective editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. Contact him at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail ssalter@clarionledger.com

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