Opinion: Public officials in legal trouble should not be offered special treatment

Published 8:29 am Saturday, May 25, 2019

Last week’s revelation that another Lee County official received special treatment following his 2018 drunken driving arrest is deeply alarming.

After County Supervisor Billy Joe Holland was arrested and charged with driving under the influence in April 2018, not only did he not get booked or have to bond out, but his charges also were quickly dismissed, as exposed in an exclusive Daily Journal story by reporters Caleb Bedillion and William Moore.

This is the second instance over the past year in which a local official was given preferential treatment by law enforcement. Tupelo city attorney Ben Logan was never booked in the Lee County Jail following his December arrest on charges of DUI-refusal.

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The two incidents show a clear pattern in which justice is not evenly administered.

Instead, a privileged few – the wealthy, the powerful, the elected – are able to escape the same consequences that pummel average citizens. And when there isn’t one clear standard applied to everyone, it erodes the public’s confidence in a system that was designed to keep them safe.

For his part, Holland told the Daily Journal he doesn’t know why the case was dismissed and that he didn’t ask for such. The second-term supervisor said he was prepared to face the legal consequences of his actions.

“I hate that it happened,” Holland said of his arrest. “I messed up. It’s my fault, and I’m moving on.”

Holland was stopped at a Mississippi Highway Patrol checkpoint on April 6, 2018 and was taken to the Lee County Jail, where a test showed his blood alcohol level to be 0.1 percent. The legal limit is 0.08 percent.

He received a citation for DUI-first offense, but his picture never appeared on the jail website, and his name was not written in the jail’s docket book, a procedure normally applied when individuals are arrested. Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson’s explanation has shifted. He first insisted to the Daily Journal that Holland was booked. When the evidence didn’t bear that out, Johnson said that he took responsibility for the manner of Holland’s release. More recently, Johnson has seemingly shifted responsibility and now says that he always assumed Holland was booked on the night of his arrest.

Meanwhile, former Lee County Prosecuting Attorney James Moore said Sheriff Johnson called him and requested the charges be dropped, a point that Johnson strongly denies. Moore also said the absence of any standard jail records helped shield Holland’s arrest from the public for more than a year.

That’s not how our justice system is supposed to work. All persons who break any Mississippi law should be treated the same and follow the same processes and procedures, regardless of their job, race or religion.

This continued pattern of abuse by local elected and government officials gives us concerns that the practice of preferential treatment of the powerful in Lee County goes much deeper and that more such incidents will be revealed.

This flawed system of protecting the good ol’ boys needs to stop immediately, and officials need to be held accountable for their role in it. The law must be equally applied to all.

This editorial was originally published in The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal newspaper.