Tiger Woods faces first court hearing on prescription-drug DUI charge

When social media photos surfaced of Tiger Woods exercising at a gym in the Bahamas on Tuesday, golf pundits the world over wondered aloud whether it meant the aging golf great was mounting what could be a final attempt at a comeback in his storied career.

» Celebrity justice in Palm Beach County: Tiger Woods not the first

»WATCH: Tiger Woods DUI jail video released by PBSO

In Palm Beach County meanwhile, a court hearing scheduled for Wednesday could reveal once and for all how Woods will handle his Memorial Day arrest on a charge of driving under the influence of a mix of prescription medicines, including the painkillers Vicodin and Xanax.

tweet from the 41-year-old Jupiter Island resident letting his fans know he was seeking professional help has been Woods’ most revealing response in the two months since Jupiter police say they found him asleep behind the wheel of his Mercedes-Benz on May 29 with unexplained bumper damage and two flat tires. At his Wednesday arraignment on the misdemeanor DUI charge, his lawyers could reveal whether he plans to take his case to trial or become Palm Beach County’s most famous participant in the State Attorney’s Office’s first-time DUI offender diversion program.

»RELATED: The latest headlines on Tiger Woods’ DUI arrest

The program, which comes with a 12-month probation term, would save him from a DUI conviction but requires conditions some local attorneys say are too strenuous for his case. Or Woods could take the case to trial and hope a jury acquits him. Or he can hope that his attorney, Douglas Duncan, can otherwise work out a deal with prosecutors that will keep him from either outcome.

Whatever Woods decides, West Palm Beach defense attorney Jack Goldberger said, he will have to consider what impact his decision will have on his public image, which has already been tarnished by the 2007 incident where a golf club attack by his now former wife, Elin Woods, was linked to revelations that Tiger Woods was having multiple extramarital affairs.

“If I’m sitting across the table from him, I’m telling him to take it [the diversion program] and be done with it,” Goldberger said. “Because he’s in the public eye, every hearing, every thing he does, will bring more attention. And his children are old enough now that they’ll understand what’s going on.”

Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg instituted the first-time DUI offender program four years ago as an attempt to cut the backlog of DUI cases in the court system and give first-time offenders a chance to keep a DUI conviction off their records. As part of the program, participants must attend a DUI school, perform community service, undergo random drug testing and agree to have an interlock device installed on their cars.

In exchange, prosecutors agree to drop the DUI charges and allow participants to plead guilty to a reckless driving charge and have a judge withhold a finding of guilt so they can later expunge the case from their records.

Goldberger, whose clientele has included well-heeled defendants such as billionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, says many celebrities like Woods would opt for such a program to resolve their cases as discreetly as possible.

Woods’ celebrity made his arrest the subject of local and national headlines. Other celebrities residing in Palm Beach County who have recently faced the same fate are NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who pleaded guilty on June 19 to a DUI charge resulting from a Sept. 2, 2016 car crash near Palm Beach Gardens, and tennis star Venus Williams, who was involved in a fatal car crash on June 9 in Palm Beach Gardens. Williams was not charged with any infraction but has been sued for wrongful death by the family of 78-year-old Jerome Barson, who died from his injuries in the crash.

Despite Woods’ fame, West Palm Beach defense attorney Barry Paul thinks he should turn down the first-time DUI program and take his case to trial. Though Paul said he likes the local prosecutors’ program , he rarely advises people in Woods’ situation to take it.

Dashboard cam footage released by Jupiter police showed Woods unsteady on his feet and his eyes closed when police conducted the roadside sobriety test the morning he was arrested. Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputies released a second video showing Woods taking two Breathalyzer tests at the Palm Beach County jail. Although his test results showed a 0.00 percent blood alcohol content both times, the video showed he fumbled saying his own name and appeared to lean over as if he was falling asleep while waiting to take the test.

Although those videos may not play well in front of a jury, Paul said he thinks Woods could make strong arguments, as he did shortly after his arrest, that his demeanor was a result of accidental, and involuntary, side effects from medicines that were prescribed for him after he had back surgery in April.

Woods has nothing to lose by going to trial, Paul said. Even if a jury were to convict Woods, Paul believes he likely would get the same year-long term of probation that he would have to serve in the diversion program.

“For Tiger, what’s the risk? What does he care if he has a DUI on his record or not?” Paul said, adding of a potential DUI conviction. “If I’m an over-the-road (truck) driver, that’s a bad thing. If I’m Tiger Woods, not so much.”

Of the diversion program, Paul said his clients find it a burden to outfit their cars for three to six months with an in-car Breathalyzer that requires them to blow into a tube that checks blood alcohol content every time they get behind the wheel. 

Brian Gabriel, another defense attorney who specializes in DUI cases, also said shortly after Woods’ arrest that he should go to trial and try for an acquittal, but last week Gabriel said he was no longer so sure.

Under the terms of the diversion program, Woods will have to let prosecutors know by the time of his arraignment Wednesday whether he will participate or not. Duncan in late May waived Woods’ appearance at court hearings, but he will have to appear in court if he plans to enter a guilty or no contest plea before Palm Beach County Judge Sandra Bosso-Pardo. He, of course, also would have to appear in court if the case were to go to trial.

Gabriel, who has no involvement in Woods case, says it’s possible that prosecutors and Duncan have already worked out a deal. If Woods has already started working on some of the conditions of the program, then it’s possible the parties can come to court Wednesday and allow Woods to enter a guilty or no contest plea so he wouldn’t have to return to court again as long as he completed the program.

As for his future in golf, Woods had tweeted just days before his arrest that he was looking forward to competing again professionally once he healed from his most recent back surgery.

Paul says no matter his intentions for the golf course, it’s unlikely Woods’ DUI charge will have him making many courtroom appearances.

“Even if he goes to trial, I wouldn’t be going back to court for multiple hearings,” Paul said. “I’d set the trial for next month and just get to it, and either way it goes he can get it over with and move on.”

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