Criminal Issues

The Legal Blitz Friday Feature: How Floyd Mayweather Avoided A Knockout In Court

Each Friday we will feature an article from our good friends at The Legal Blitz. Please enjoy the following piece and check out The Legal Blitz when you get a chance!

In December of 2011, Floyd Mayweather Jr., one of the world’s best boxers who has a bravado and ego large enough to match his 42-0 record, pled guilty to misdemeanor domestic battery charges to avoid a felony conviction. He was subsequently sentenced to 90 days in jail. Then something curious happened — earlier this month a Las Vegas Justice of the Peace postponed Mayweather’s sentence to allow him to fight in a Cinco de Mayo bout against a yet-to-be-named opponent because of the significant economic impact the fight would have on the Las Vegas economy. Mayweather is now expected to report to jail sometime in June.

So just how did Floyd “Money” Mayweather temporarily get out of jail and back into the ring?

For that answer, we here at The Legal Blitz turned to UNLV Associate Professor of Law Addie C. Rolnick to get the lowdown on what was going on in Sin City. Rolnick, a boxing enthusiast herself, is an expert in criminal law and procedure, critical race theory, Indian law, and juvenile justice. Here is her take on Mayweather’s sentencing.

UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law Associate Professor Addie C. Rolnick

Can you provide some background about the charges and what actually happened in the courtroom?

Mayweather was initially charged with eight different offenses. If convicted of all of those offenses, he could have faced a maximum sentence of over 30 years, although it is unlikely that he would have received the maximum. As part of the plea bargain, five of the charges were dropped and Mayweather pled guilty to three: one count of battery constituting domestic violence stemming from the assault on Josie Harris, and two counts of harassment stemming from threats of violence made to his children. He was fined for the harassment convictions and given jail time for the domestic violence conviction.

Nevada courts enjoy broad discretion in most cases to impose a sentence within the statutory range, unless the mandatory minimum is required by statute. This permits court to individually tailor a sentence for each defendant. While it can leave room for inequities, judicial discretion is a critical component of a criminal justice system. Without it, judges would not be able to consider the circumstances of the crime or the characteristics defendant when imposing a sentence.

For the first domestic violence offense in a seven-year period, Nevada law provides for a minimum of two days and a maximum of six months in jail. Mayweather was given the maximum, but half of the sentence (90 days) was suspended, meaning that he will serve 90 days assuming he complies with all of the conditions of his sentence. If he violates the conditions, including failing to perform the required community service or committing a new offense, he could serve the full six months. His jail sentence was likely longer than many other defendants receive for a first offense of the same type, but it was well within the sentencing range. Judge Saragosa has said that the fact that he committed the offense in the presence of his children, who were old enough to understand what was happening, was a significant factor in her sentencing decision.

On a basic level, how much leeway do judges have when deciding whether or not to grant a sentencing delay like Mayweather received?

Nevada law grants judges a lot of flexibility in determining when a sentence is served and expressly contemplates that this might be done in order to enable the defendant to fulfill work obligations. NRS 200.485(1)(a) reads:

“A term of imprisonment imposed pursuant to this paragraph may be served intermittently at the discretion of the judge or justice of the peace, except that each period of confinement must be not less than 4 consecutive hours and must occur at a time when the person is not required to be at his or her place of employment or on a weekend.”

Factors that may be considered in the decision whether to grant a delay include the defendant’s criminal history (or lack thereof), the length of time at the job, the presence of particular time-sensitive obligations, and the severity of the facts giving rise to the charge.

Are such delays common?

Delays are not common, but they are not unheard of either. Certainly, many people’s sentences are not delayed, whether because the defendant did not want it, because the attorney did not request request it, or because the court refused to grant it. A jail or prison term can be a devastating disruption in a person’s life, resulting in lost earnings, lost employment, lost custody, and fractured relationships. I view it as a positive that a court is willing to consider a defendant’s circumstances when scheduling jail time. The important question is not why such delays are granted, but why they may not be granted in all cases where they might be appropriate.

Do prosecutors have any means to challenge such a ruling?

The prosecutor had a chance to challenge the ruling in court when the motion was filed, which she did. A sentence within the legal range cannot usually be appealed.

The main reason for the judge’s decision in this situation was to allow Mayweather to uphold a contract for a Cinco de Mayo boxing match that would seemingly provide a big boost to the Las Vegas economy. Do you think this is a valid reason? Does this set a bad precedent and potential slippery slope?

The law contemplates that work obligations are a valid consideration. While boxing is not a 9-5 job, a boxer’s livelihood does depend on adhering to a schedule, usually one or two fights per years with several months of training preceding each one. The law permits judges to take such employment obligations into account.

Another question is whether it is valid for the judge to consider at sentencing the citywide economic impact of Mayweather’s fight, as the media has suggested Judge Saragosa did. This would be unusual, but it makes sense to minimize the disruptive impact of his sentence on the city.

Is the public and media outrage over Mayweather’s perceived special celebrity treatment overblown or justified?

His celebrity status cuts both ways. He was able to retain excellent defense counsel, who asked for and was granted the delay to his jail term. His career also has an economic impact on many people, which may or may not have factored into the judge’s decision to grant the delay. On the other hand, he got the maximum sentence under law, though part of his sentence is suspended. It is not uncommon for a first time domestic violence offender in Clark County to receive only a suspended sentence, serving no jail time at all.

Mayweather is nicknamed “Money” and “Pretty Boy”

Do you think race plays a role in that outrage to some part because not only is this is a black boxer who pled guilty to domestic battery but this is a man who has had that “thug” reputation his whole career?

The population of Clark County is ten percent black, but Blacks make up a much larger proportion of the inmates in the Clark County jail (the jail has not released detailed population statistics). The undeniable disparity indicates that here, as elsewhere, race – and especially Blackness – always plays a role in the criminal justice system, even if the judge in a particular case does not consciously consider it.

In addition to the general entanglement between race and criminal justice, Mayweather’s celebrity is premised in part on his ability to embody a deeply embedded cultural stereotype of an athletic, angry and dangerous Black man. His vocation requires him to display brutality and violence, both in the ring and in media appearances outside of the ring. The public’s simultaneous fascination and fear with this image is a double-edged sword, though, and Black male athletes are routinely subject to harsher penalties and greater public condemnation for violence in their personal lives.

But a singular focus on the role race plays in Mayweather’s image and celebrity, and the public’s schizophrenic reaction to it, obscures another story about race and violence. Domestic violence is a leading killer of black women. In Nevada, the rate of women killed by men is more than twice the national average, and the rate of Black women killed by men is more than twice the rate for white women in the state. While Black men are the imagined perpetrators of domestic violence, Black women are often the real, but rarely the imagined, victims of domestic violence.

Does this case present a troubling view on how the court views domestic violence? The Judge here is a woman, but it seems like this is sort of being dismissed as not that serious of an offense.

Keep in mind that despite the media discussion about Mayweather getting offeasy, his sentence has been delayed, but not reduced. Judge Saragosa sentenced him to six months in jail – the statutory maximum – and suspended half of it, leaving him with a three-month sentence. Mayweather’s sentence is not insignificant, given the statutory range.

Do you think this ruling is representative of our general culture of giving celebrities special treatment in the criminal justice system or is this unique to Las Vegas?

(See number 5.) While the impact of professional boxing matches on the Las Vegas economy is in some sense unique, the economic impact of the sports and entertainment industries is a global phenomenon, and Mayweather does not seem any differently positioned than other celebrities in this respect. Some would argue that Las Vegas courts are actually harsher on celebrities than are courts in other states. To compare to California, for example, Charlie Sheen was sentenced to 30 days in rehab for a 2009 domestic violence assault, and Chris Brown received probation in 2009, avoiding jail time completely, for a particularly brutal domestic violence assault.