We're of two minds regarding Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott's brief investigation of Olympian Michael Phelps' pot-smoking episode.
One one hand, Lott might have felt that he could not ignore the incident in which Phelps admitted to being pictured holding a marijuana pipe at a Columbia house party in November. On the other hand, would Lott have gone to the same lengths to investigate the incident if it had not involved the most accomplished Olympic athlete in history?
Lott announced at a Feb. 16 press conference that Phelps would not be charged. But he dropped the case begrudgingly.
"Michael Phelps is truly an American hero ... but even with his star status, he is still obligated to obey the laws of our state," Lott said.
Fair enough. Lott went on to note that if he had ignored the incident, he would have sent "a message of tolerance and condoning the use of illegal drugs," and he couldn't do that.
In truth, though, Lott ignores misdemeanor infractions such as Phelps' all the time. He has no choice; he has neither the resources nor the public support to go after everyone in his jurisdiction who smokes marijuana.
We suspect that a routine perusal of Facebook pages and other Internet sites would yield hundreds of pictures of people smoking what looks like a marijuana pipe or using other possible drug paraphernalia. In most cases, law enforcement agents will not seek to charge the individuals pictured.
Lott's investigation of Phelps is a good example of how difficult prosecution is with such flimsy evidence. Lott's investigators couldn't find enough evidence to charge anyone who attended the party, much less Phelps.
Legal experts noted even before Lott launched this probe that charges were unlikely because Phelps was not caught by authorities committing a crime and that credible witnesses would be difficult to find. Furthermore, state law doesn't allow extradition of suspects charged with crimes carrying sentnces of less than a year, including simple possession of marijuana.
So, in effect, the sheriff's efforts were doomed from the start.
Critics have accused him of grandstanding and wasting taxpayer dollars on a minor drug case. We'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he regarded the pursuit of Phelps as doing his duty.
But Phelps had taken responsibility for his mistake and profusely apologized. He had been dropped by Kellogg's as an endorser. He was barred from swimming competitions for several months.
And the law he broke is broken routinely all the time throughout the nation. Sheriff Lott might have publicly chastized Phelps for his dumb act and left it at that.
Sheriff Lott's investigation of Olympic swimmer probably was doomed from start.