Webber Denies Marijuana Allegation
By Philip P. Pan
Washington Wizards star Chris Webber denied under oath yesterday that he was driving under the influence of marijuana when Prince George's County police stopped him for speeding in January. Webber said he failed a series of sobriety tests because an officer blasted him four times with pepper spray trying to arrest him.
"First of all, I couldn't see. ... My face was burning. My throat felt like I had eaten a lot of hot sauce. I was breathing the spray in and out. I was dizzy," Webber told an administrative law judge during a five-hour hearing on whether his driving privileges should be suspended for 120 days. Webber, who has a Michigan driver's license, said he was wearing his seat belt when sprayed. "After that, I was grabbed by the neck and thrown out of the car and onto the ground."
Yesterday's hearing in the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration offices in Largo offered a preview of Webber's criminal trial next month on charges of assault, resisting arrest and marijuana possession. Webber testified for almost an hour about his Jan. 20 arrest.
The MVA is trying to suspend Webber's driving privileges in Maryland because he refused to submit a blood sample as requested by police. To obtain the suspension, the state must prove that police had "reasonable grounds" to believe that Webber was driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs and thus had reason to ask for the blood test.
Similar hearings usually last less than an hour, followed by an immediate ruling. But Webber's included extensive testimony, with defense and police experts clashing over whether marijuana or pepper spray caused Webber to fail various tests.
Afterward, Judge Stephen J. Nichols announced that he would need more time to consider the evidence and said he would file a written decision within 30 days. In the meantime, he said, Webber is free to drive in Maryland.
Webber testified that his eyes were so irritated by the pepper spray that officers had to point out where he should sign various forms. He said he continued to suffer from the pepper spray for seven days after his arrest.
"It was embarrassing. I had to go to the trainer of the team," he said. "Every day, I had to come in and take Visine."
But Cpl. Michael Rose, the officer who examined Webber, testified that pepper spray did not affect how Webber fared on a series of tests he conducted tests that are used nationally to determine whether a motorist is on drugs.
Rose said he began examining Webber more than four hours after he was pulled over for speeding on Landover Road near the Capital Beltway. "The pepper spray was long out of his body," he said.
Rose acknowledged that the spray might explain a few of Webber's symptoms, such as redness of the eyes, but he said he concluded Webber was too impaired by marijuana to drive, based on the combined results of several tests.
For example, Rose testified, Webber swayed and lost his balance when asked to walk a straight line heel-to-toe and perform other tasks. Webber's eyelids and limbs were trembling during many of the tests, and he had trouble touching the tip of his nose with the tip of his finger.
Rose also said Webber's pupils were dilated, his blood pressure was elevated and his breath smelled of marijuana.
But Mary Ann McLaurin, an attending physician at Potomac Hospital, testified for the defense that it is all but impossible to detect marijuana on someone's breath. She also said the results of every other test police conducted on Webber could be explained by the pepper spray, which she said could affect an individual for days. "I think it's amazing that Mr. Webber was able to do any of these tests considering he had not been adequately treated and decontaminated," she said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company