A Fairfax County judge dismissed a charge of being drunk in public against Washington Redskins running back John Riggins yesterday after saying: "Well, why are we picking on Mr. Riggins?"
Courtroom 2-H burst into applause as Judge Thomas Jefferson Rothrock made his ruling after a spirited debate over the definition of "public." A subdued Riggins, dressed in a maroon sports jacket, gray slacks and gray cowboy boots, left General District Court in Fairfax with a "no comment" as his fans begged for autographs and the cameras rolled.
What started out as an ordinary day in traffic court on a misdemeanor charge took on the appearance of a celebrity trial -- complete with the packed courtroom, blownup black-and-white photographs of "the scene," eight witnesses and attorneys citing their law books.
Before it all began, Riggins' attorney, Jerry M. Phillips, commented to a courtroom observer: "She (Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Sarah Deneke) says she's got five witnesses. I've never seen five witnesses for a drunk in public before."
Riggins, sporting a new beard, was in court to fight the DIP charge, which carries a maximum of $100 fine and typically does not go to trial because of the expense. The case was never actually tried yesterday, because Phillips made his motion to dismiss the case, arguing that there was lack of probable cause for Riggins, 36, to be arrested.
Although Rothrock dismissed the case, he agreed with Deneke that the officer had probable cause to arrest Riggins on July 25, noting the officer's testimony that he detected an odor of alcohol on Riggins' breath and that his eyes were bloodshot and his speech somewhat slurred.
"Well, I think the officer had probable cause . . . but I'm more interested in what we consider public," said Rothrock. "I have real problems with that, always have."
The judge asked for the definition of public. It's "anyone in open view of the public," answered Deneke.
"Standing on the shoulder of a road in Reston . . . in the middle of the night?" Rothrock replied, referring to that "lonely road in Reston" where Riggins was arrested at about 1:50 a.m.
With the question apparently not resolved to his satisfaction, Rothrock said, "Well, why are we picking on Mr. Riggins? Well, let's put an end to this right now," and he dismissed the case.
Riggins was arrested along with his friend, Stuart Miller, 40, who was driving him home to Vienna after a night out at Clyde's at Tysons Corner and a stop for omelets. The Fairfax County police officer who pulled them over said Miller was weaving, did not lower his beams when the officer flicked his lights at him and made a left-hand turn from a right-hand lane.
Miller, who testified yesterday, was arrested on a charge of driving while intoxicated and acquitted of that misdemeanor charge last September after he told the judge that his cowboy boots made him lose his balance during one of the tests.
Riggins was arrested after he stepped out of Miller's car.
Phillips grilled officer T.W. Field about what happened when Riggins got out, demanding to know why he didn't offer Riggins an Alco-sensor test, or shine a flashlight into his eyes or ask him if he was sick.
Riggins testified that he stepped out of the car and said, "What's going on?" He said he met Field at the back of the BMW after the officer had handcuffed Miller and put him in his cruiser.
"I asked him: 'Do we really have to go through all this?' " Riggins testified.
At this point, Riggins said, the officer said, "Where would you like to go?" Riggins said he was debating whether he should "abandon my friend" and before he could answer was arrested for being drunk in public.
Phillips made an impassioned closing statement, saying that not only was "not a single test" performed at the scene for the presence of alcohol, but that Riggins had made the "proper decision to let someone else drive."
He said if his motion to dismiss was not granted, it would have a "chilling effect on what I'd say is proper behavior."
Deneke said that although the case was handled no differently than any other case, "it was a very unusual ending."
She said the judge apparently dismissed the charge "because there was nobody else around" when Riggins was arrested. "Our evidence was never introduced," she said.
"We're pleased," Phillips said of the outcome. "We think he's been vindicated and it's a dead issue. We're glad it's over."
Phillips had said earlier that fighting the charge was important to Riggins because he wanted to dispel any impression that he has a drinking problem.