Let's say, for the sake of argument, that you like drugs—a lot. So much so that you frequently travel around with small amounts of heroin, crack and powder cocaine stashed in your pockets. Only you're not very discreet about it: the cops, it seems, are onto you, and they pick you up every chance they get—more than 20 times over the course of four years. Twenty strikes, and you'd be out, right?
Not if you're a talented but troubled British rocker named Pete Doherty. Pete, the frontman for a band called Babyshambles (and, before he got pinched for robbing a bandmate's stuff, in what his own lawyer admitted was a "drug-addled state," The Libertines), is perhaps best known as the erstwhile boyfriend of supermodel Kate Moss, who has had her own brush with the law over cocaine. (He also debuts an art show this month, featuring paintings made with his own blood.) But the 28-year-old Doherty, who was picked up again last week in London for possession of crack, deserves more acclaim as the Cal Ripken of drug busts.
Consider Jan. 26, 2006, when Doherty was arrested three times in a single day, twice for heroin possession and once for assault (he pleaded guilty on the drugs; the assault charge seems to have been expunged from his record). Or April 20 of the same year, when Doherty, already under a community order stemming from a previous drug conviction, pleaded to seven new counts of possession of heroin, crack and cannabis; a judge, noting that he was "showing significant signs of compliance and effort" gave him another community order (a British term that can encompass community service, rehab, drug tests and other measures) and a driving ban in lieu of jail time. Just hours later he was arrested yet again, on fresh charges of possessing Class A drugs—a category that includes heroin and crack cocaine. (Attempts to reach Doherty's lawyer and spokesman through the band's talent agency were unsuccessful).
For his sins, Doherty has paid a pretty low price: a series of minor jail stints, lasting, separately, one month, two weeks, four nights and the occasional overnight stay. America is accustomed to stories of celebrities getting lenient treatment from the law. But even Robert Downey Jr., who repeatedly avoided jail time in the late 1990s with a series of probations and promises to get clean in rehab, eventually went away for a good long stint behind bars. So what gives? What does this guy have to do to get sentenced to hard time?
U.S. gossip mills think it's daft. "Pete Doherty was charged with possession of heroin, crack cocaine and cannabis," wrote E! Online in December 2006. "He received no jail time. Stop us if you've heard this one before." CRACK NOW BASICALLY LEGAL IN UK FOR PETE DOHERTY said Gawker.com in a headline.
It sounds farcical—and sometimes the legal response really is, as in an August 2005 incident at Oslo's Gardermoen airport, in which Doherty, who had allegedly attempted to bring crack and heroin into the country, was fined a mere 8,000 krone (about $1,200) and was still able to perform at a concert that night. (Concert organizers reportedly paid the fine, and officials in Norway told one London newspaper that there would be no further repurcussions).
But the reality is more complicated than the old "rock star gets special treatment" song and dance. Spokespersons for district attorneys' offices in the United States surveyed by NEWSWEEK were not eager to label their European counterparts as soft on drug crime; they agree that for the most part, Doherty appears to be an individual with a problem, not a dealer or a violent criminal. It may seem mad to mount a defense of a man who's been picked up more times than a ha'penny coin, but here are some of the reasons the musician has kept his freedom:
He's not much of a threat to others. One quirk of Doherty's rap sheet is that it appears to run backward. The rocker's longest jail term was for his first high-profile offense: the July 2003 burglary of Libertines bandmate Carl Barat's Westminster flat of instruments and electronics. Doherty was sentenced to six months, which was later cut to two, and then further reduced to one, on account of good behavior. In September 2004, he was given a four-month suspended sentence for possession of a flick knife (switchblade) and driving dangerously; twice in 2005, he was arrested for assault, but the charges were dropped. After that, Doherty's arrests are mostly for possession and ancillary charges, like driving without a license. He's never been caught with a gun, for instance, a major offense on both sides of the Atlantic.
He never carries a lot of weight. Nobody thinks Doherty is a dealer. When he is arrested for possession, it's usually for a few grams or less. On Dec. 4, 2006, for example, he was reportedly carrying 0.923 grams of heroin and 0.087 grams of crack cocaine. The April 20, 2006, arrest was reportedly for 1.37 grams of heroin and 1.2 grams of cocaine. (One of his April 2006 arrests was on suspicion of possession "with intent to supply," but that charge was later reduced.) "If you supply Class A drugs, you're very likely to go inside. If it's just possession, you're not likely," says Robert Brown, a solicitor based in London. And in the United Kingdom, as opposed to the United States, it really is within the realm of possibility that a judge could have unlimited patience for an offender who limits his transgressions to simple possession.
How bad would it be to cross the line? In April 2006 public sentiment turned abruptly against Doherty when the Sun tabloid, under the headline YOU SICK IDIOT, published pictures of the rocker supposedly injecting an unconscious girl with heroin. Doherty was arrested in a raid but ultimately convinced police he had merely been drawing blood from a willing fan for use in a painting, and before long he was back to being perceived as incorrigible, but not evil.
He travels. Some of Doherty's arrests have taken place beyond British soil, bringing big headlines but no lasting legal ramifications. In addition to the Oslo incident, Doherty was detained by cops at a Barcelona airport in June 2006 after airline crew members suspected he had injected heroin inside a lavatory in-flight. (A Babyshambles spokesman said at the time that the only substance involved was methadone, and no charges were filed.)
Celebrity counts. "Tortured genius is too much—but tortured savant may be more like it," says Dr. Chris Greer, a lecturer in criminology at London's City University. "Everyone knows he's fantastically talented as a songwriter, and he has this pained on-off relationship with the most iconic model in the world. And the fact that he's harming only himself, rather than harming others, makes him more sympathetic." Could magistrates be swayed? It's impossible to know for sure, but some don't hide their artistic appreciation. In September 2006, London's Evening Standard reported, District Judge Jane McIvor—before delaying sentencing for a five-count guilty Doherty plea—intoned this from the bench: "Your song 'The Blinding' is very good. The music is very good—but I'm not sure about the lyrics."
OK. So what would it take for Doherty to spend some serious time in the slammer? "Dealing," says Greer. "Putting other people in danger—if he drives his car into a pram, for instance. Locking him up for that would make a statement. But locking up a man who can't get over his addiction is completely different."
Can Doherty really delay significant jail time indefinitely, as long as he doesn't harm others? Can Britain really have what music news site Aversion.com called a "1,384 strikes and you're out" program?
For the time being, the answer appears to be a qualified yes. "If you've got a habit, an illness, an addiction, the court will give you so many chances," says Brown. But, the more a person violates the terms of his probation, the more stringent the constraints on his lifestyle become. (Once, in February 2005, a judge relaxed Doherty's curfew for a night so that he could play a show at London's Brixton Academy. That's unlikely to happen again.) And eventually, a judge may decide that the court has had enough.
Or, to borrow the name of a Babyshambles tune, Doherty could stay out till the 32nd of December.