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Defense attorneys: 2012 DUI, COVID-19 could throw curveball in Jon Jones case

What happens next in Jon Jones’ latest legal case could be more serious because of his past. But any punishment he potentially faces could also be blunted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Veteran defense attorneys based in Albuquerque, N.M., say the most serious trouble Jones faces is if prosecutors bring into court a 2012 DUI conviction, meaning he could be charged as a second-time offender. A conviction could result in a mandatory 90-day jail sentence with up to one year in jail.

“It allows the prosecutor to make a strong argument, look how many opportunities he’s had to modify his behavior, and look how every time he’s been given an opportunity, he thumbs his nose and does what he pleases,” criminal defense specialist David Serna told MMA Fighting.

Jones, 32, faces four misdemeanors – aggravated DWI, negligent use of a firearm, possession of an open container and failure to provide proof of insurance – stemming from his arrest early Thursday morning in downtown Albuquerque.

As detailed in a pair of police reports, officers responded to a single gunshot and discovered Jones in a running Jeep with an unknown subject sitting on the sidewalk beside the passenger door. Jones, who denied he discharged a gun, allegedly had marijuana residue on his clothing and failed a sobriety test. Officers later discovered a .22 Glock pistol and a shell casing beside the car that matched the gun’s caliber.

Jones was released hours later from the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center and is due back in court on April 8 for a bond hearing, where a judge will set terms of his pre-trial release.

The UFC light heavyweight champ has had several run-ins with the law in his adopted hometown. Just two months ago, he completed probation on a disorderly conduct charge for allegedly assaulting an employee at a strip club. In 2015, he received 18 months of probation for a hit-and-run case that resulted in him being stripped of the title.

Serna said defendants rarely get jail time for the other charges Jones currently faces. But he said the fighter’s case from eight years ago is “likely” to be factored in. That would expose him to a more severe penalty than the standard one for first-time DWI offenders in New Mexico, which is a mandatory penalty of 48 hours in jail, a maximum of 90 days in jail and one year of probation.

“I would think that the judge would probably give the guy some time, because the judge would look at the prior history and see the guy has been given break after break and may say now’s the time you’re going to be held accountable,” Serna said.

In the coming weeks, the case will be forwarded to state prosecutors, who will gather available evidence from police and decide how to proceed on the case. According to the district attorney’s spokesperson, they have already requested bodycam footage and other evidence for their investigation.

Serna is very familiar with the reporting officer on the case, Jason C. Brown, who initially conducted the traffic stop on Jones in front of The Library Bar and Grill. He believes Brown is the same officer who cited Jones in 2016 for drag racing; in a bodycam video that went viral, Jones and Brown had a heated verbal exchange with the UFC champ calling police officer “a pig.”

According to the Albuquerque Journal, Brown, who called assisting officer Brian Johnson to the scene to conduct the field sobriety test that resulted in Jones’ arrest, has been the subject of three civilian complaints over racial profiling.

“He’s certainly a well-known member of the DWI unit,” Serna said of Brown. “It’s a bad luck thing when the initial cop that stops you happens to be a member of the DWI unit.

“Who knows, he may have had a thing out for this defendant. I’d be surprised if the (defense) lawyers don’t argue there was some pretext or vindictive prosecution, just because he’s had run-ins with this same guy before. I think the defense would certainly assert that this particular cop is after this particular guy.”

Based on the police report, defense attorney Erlinda Johnson said there are several opportunities for the lawyers who defend Jones. She cited, for example, the unknown role of the person sitting on the sidewalk next to his vehicle and said that brings into question the other allegations against Jones and who potentially could be at fault.

“They never mention the second subject who was supposedly on the sidewalk, because it does talk about the driver and then another subject on the sidewalk,” she said. “So there’s an issue about whether they can prove he had control of the vehicle. For the defense attorney, I can see a lot of potential issues to raise with this case. Just by virtue of the fact that he was sitting in the driver’s seat does not necessarily mean they can convict him for the DWI.”

Ultimately, Serna said the case’s direction depends on whether Jones’ attorneys believe they will get a favorable outcome with the judge assigned to the case, and whether prosecutors believe they have a strong enough case to win a conviction – or settle for a plea-bargain that will save state resources.

“Usually, the DA is happy to waive a jury trial whether it’s part of a plea bargain, dropping it down from a second to a first (offense), or whether it’s because the DA doesn’t want to go through all the hassle and time a jury trial will take,” he said. “It will take a day just to pick the jury because this guy is well-known. It will take a day or two just to try the case, so what started out as a half-day bench trial gets stretched out to a two or three-day trial. Prosecutors typically are more than happy to waive a jury trial because of all the time it eats up that could have been used pleading out dozens of other people.”

Jones’ case also arrives at an unprecedented time for the legal system. The COVID-19 virus has put local courts in a holding pattern as officials try to prevent the spread of the virus. Johnson said most of her caseload has been delayed and expects the same could happen for the champ.

“You have certain rules that have to be adhered to if it stays a misdemeanor,” she said. “If he isn’t brought to trail by a certain time, his case could potentially be dismissed. If the state doesn’t produce the witnesses, or the officers because they’re being used for the more pressing national health matters, there are a lot of different issues litigating the case.”

Then again, Johnson said Jones’ fame may be more of a detriment than a benefit when prosecutors decide the severity of the charges.

“(They) may not want to be perceived as dismissing a case because somebody’s famous, and using the excuse of the national health emergency as the reason for the dismissal,” she said.

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