Assessing Tiger’s legal options and why a plea deal seems likely

May 30, 2017

A police report released on Tuesday by the Jupiter (Fla.) Police Department sheds substantial light on the arrest of Tiger Woods for driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  

The report indicates that at 2 a.m. Monday officers observed a black Mercedes Benz stopped in the right-hand lane of a road with both its brake lights and right blinker flashing. In walking over to the car, an officer noticed Woods asleep behind the wheel. Woods, who was wearing a seat belt, had to be awakened. According to the report, Woods then engaged in “extremely slow and slurred speech.” He appeared confused about his whereabouts, offering inconsistent explanations about why he was on the road and from where he was driving.  

Woods proceeded to fail a field sobriety test, which involves several tasks. Woods—obviously a world-class athlete, even with injuries and decline—couldn’t complete a basic “walk and turn” exercise where he had to place one foot in front of the other while taking heel-to-toe steps in a straight line. Woods also expressed bewilderment about the officers’ instruction that he recite the alphabet. He instead thought he was supposed to recite the National Anthem backwards.  

On the other hand, Woods submitted to two breathalyzer tests and blew 0.000 on both of them, meaning the test results revealed no alcohol in his system. Keep in mind Woods could have refused to take those tests. However, under Florida law, his refusal would have rendered his driver’s license subject to a one-year suspension. In addition, officers detected no odor of alcohol in the car. The report also indicates that Woods explained he was on several prescription medications.

The police report is consistent with Woods’s public statements  

While the police report is damning of Woods, it corroborates his explanation. In a statement released after his release, Woods stressed that “alcohol was not involved” in the incident. Woods passing two breathalyzer tests, as detailed in the report, supports that view. Woods’s statement also maintained that his behavior resulted from “an unexpected reaction to prescribed medications”—a statement consistent with Woods’s remarks to officers at the time of his arrest.  

The report also describes Woods as “cooperative.” While this depiction may not seem all that important, it is significant for a few reasons. First, it disproves reporting by several media outlets that Woods was uncooperative. The police report suggests Woods did what was asked of him and that he seemed polite, albeit confused. Second, Woods’s cooperation would be favorably taken into consideration in any plea deal or sentencing. Third, Woods is less likely to suffer reputational damage—and potentially lost endorsement deals—if he is viewed as compliant while interacting with law enforcement.

Legal aftermath for Woods and possibility of a plea deal  

Even without drinking and driving, Woods is still in trouble with the law. Florida law prohibits driving while impaired due to the use of a chemical substance or a controlled substance. An officer’s accompanying affidavit states that Woods, who had back surgery five weeks ago and has had multiple knee surgeries over the years, told officers he was taking four medications. One was the prescription painkiller Vicodin, which is a controlled substance. As a driver of a motor vehicle on public roads, Woods is responsible for any possible adverse reactions from taking medicine. Public safety commands that.  

This is not to say that other persons who may have been responsible for getting medicines to Woods are without blame. If the evidence warranted, Woods could sue the prescribing doctor and pharmacy for malpractice over failure to adequately notify him of potential drug reactions. He could even sue the company or companies that manufactured the drugs, claiming that he wasn’t reasonably warned of risks. Those kinds of scenarios, however, are far-fetched, especially since Vicodin contains warnings that it may cause drowsiness. Even if Woods adopted a litigious strategy and won civil lawsuits against doctors and drug companies, those wins would not absolve Woods of criminal responsibility for driving while impaired.  

Woods does not appear interested in a legal battle over the incident. In his statement, Woods writes, “I understand the severity of what I did and I take full responsibility for my actions.” Although this statement does not constitute an express admission to breaking the law, it signals that Woods accepts blame.  

If Woods still elected to defend himself from the DUI charge, he could invoke several types of defenses. For instance, Woods might contend that his performance in the field sobriety test was far better than is depicted in the police report and that the police lacked probable cause to charge him. He could also stress that his car was stopped the whole time while it was in the view of police officers. Although the car engine was running, Woods might argue the car was not going anywhere while he was impaired.

More likely, Woods, who is scheduled to appear in court on July 5, will work out a plea deal with prosecutors. In such a deal, Woods would plead guilty or no contest to a lesser charge, such as reckless driving. Under Florida law, a first time conviction for DUI can lead to several kinds of penalties, including: loss of a driver’s license for 180 days to a 1 year; a fine of $1,000; probation of up to a year; 50 hours of community service; and an ignition interlock device installed in any car driven by the defendant. Penalties for reckless driving are similar, though less severe.   

Florida law also authorizes a jail sentence of up to six months for DUI (up to 90 days for reckless driving), though it is unlikely that Woods, as a first time offender who has been cooperative, would receive any jail if convicted. Woods’s insurance rates will also be impacted by how his case is resolved. They are likely to go up. Those rates are also subject to increase due to Woods being cited for improper stopping, standing or parking in an illegal place. Such a citation also carries a fine.  

Given that Woods is reportedly worth around $740 million, paying a four-figure amount in fines and losing his license for a while would probably not prove terribly disruptive. Further, for public relations reasons, it stands to reason that Woods will want to resolve this incident as quickly as a possible. A plea deal that includes some, but not all, of the penalties mentioned in the preceding paragraph would offer him relatively swift closure.  

How the DUI matter could impact Woods’s endorsement deals and morals clauses  

Woods’s incentive to direct publication attention away from the incident as quickly as possible relates to his endorsement deals. As Woods knows from the aftermath of his 2009-10 marital infidelity scandal, companies with which he signs endorsement deals can likely exit those deals upon a finding he engaged in “immoral” conduct. Indeed, endorsement deals normally contain “morals clauses,” which authorize the endorsed company to cut ties with the endorsing athlete if that athlete brings himself/herself or the company into public disrepute. Morals clauses are normally worded in vague verbiage that supplies the company with wide discretion. Back in 2009-10, Woods lost millions of dollars in endorsement deals with several companies, including AT&T and Accenture, due to public outcry over his cheating on his then-wife, Elin Nordegren.  

Woods now faces a new controversy that could implicate morals clauses in his remaining endorsement deals. Woods has several lucrative deals, including one with Nike that reportedly pays him about $20 million a year. Woods will need to convince Nike that he can overcome the DUI controversy and that his image as a marketable celebrity for golf and sports products will remain intact. The challenge won’t be easy especially if, as expected, the Jupiter Police Department releases a dashcam video from the incident. Depending on how Woods behaves on the video, which could be released as soon as Wednesday, he could be further embarrassed and the controversy could worsen.  

Woods retained many of his endorsement deals in 2010 because even if consumers questioned his morals and character, he was the world’s number 1 or 2 ranked men’s golfer and thus possessed authoritative voice on golf. Does the 41-year-old Woods still have that authoritative voice in 2017 as “only” the world’s 876th ranked men’s golfer? It will be up to Nike and other endorsed companies to decide. A speedy resolution to his DUI matter would help Woods. The same would be true if Woods needs and obtains any medical help in regards to his use of painkillers.  

Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and a tenured law professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.