Can a Judge Order a Teenage Drunk Driver To Go To Church?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Nov. 30 2012 3:47 PM

Would You Rather Go To Church or Prison?

That’s the choice a judge gave a teenage drunk driver. Constitutional?

Church.
Can church-going be a part of a probationary sentence?

Kseniya Ragozina/iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

On its face, the case seemed tragic, but unexceptional. Last December, two teenagers were driving a pickup truck down an Oklahoma road at 4 a.m. when the driver, Tyler Alred, swerved off the road and hit a tree, ejecting and killing his 16-year-old passenger. Alred told police he had been drinking earlier that evening, and took two breath tests that showed, at the time of the crash, a blood-alcohol level of around 0.07—under the legal limit for adults, but over the limit for an underage driver. Alred pled guilty last August to manslaughter in the first degree as a youthful offender. The sentence was four years to life in prison, with parole.

But Alred won’t be serving any time in jail, provided, that is, he goes to church every Sunday for the next 10 years. In a decision that has received national attention and widespread criticism, Oklahoma District Court Judge Mike Norman gave Alred a 10-year deferred sentence, which enables Alred to avoid serving any hard time as long as he fulfills certain probation terms such as, among other things, graduating from high school, taking regular drug and alcohol tests, speaking about the dangers of drinking and driving, and, yes, going to church every week for the next decade. If Alred fails to abide by these terms, Judge Norman told the New York Times that he would send the boy to prison.

It is not the first time Judge Norman, a member of the First Baptist Church of Muskogee, Okla., whose courthouse sits in the heart of the country’s Bible Belt, has told a defendant he has to serve time in church. Judge Norman recently told the Tulsa World that he had received his fair share of “bad calls” over the past few weeks from critics of his favored alternate sentence. About their constitution objections, he said, “They may well be right, but that’s what I did and we made a record,” adding, “If someone wants to appeal my decision, they’re entitled to do that.”

Advertisement

The Supreme Court has said in no uncertain terms that “it is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise.” The Muskogee County district attorney is among those who think the judge’s decision might conflict with this constitutional protection. And the ACLU’s Oklahoma wing plans today to file a formal complaint against Judge Norman through the Oklahoma Council on Judicial Complaints. (Update, 5:27 p.m.: The ACLU has delayed their filing to Monday.) The ACLU argues that Judge Norman’s decision in the Alred case violated the Oklahoma Constitution and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by compelling the teenager to decide between serving a prison term or supporting the Christian faith. “It’s really not a voluntary choice,” explained Ryan Kiesel, executive director of ACLU’s Oklahoma branch. The ACLU is asking the council to discipline Judge Norman so as to prevent the judge from issuing more such decisions and warn other judges not to do so either.

Ryan McCartney is a student at Yale Law School.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 19 2014 6:22 PM Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.