A year ago, Sacramento Kings point guard Ty Lawson received something of a break when Denver County Court Judge Olympia Fay sentenced the former Denver Nuggets star to probation and community service for an impaired driving incident back in 2015. On March 22, Lawson will again face Judge Fay, except this time he might not be so lucky. Lawson will need to “show cause” that his probation should not be revoked and that he should not be sent to jail. If Judge Fay instead determines that Lawson—who the Denver Post reports has failed three alcohol tests since last September and failed to perform 48 hours of required community service—has violated the terms of his probation, she could order the 29-year-old, former UNC standout to spend some time behind bars.
Lawson’s eight-year NBA career also hangs in the balance. He has received multiple “second chances” by NBA teams willing to overlook his history of drinking and driving. Depending on how his March 22 hearing goes, Lawson might not get another chance.
Lawson’s probation and how it can become a jail sentence
Lawson has several driving incidents on his record, but the one for which he’d receive probation took place on Jan. 23, 2015. At the time, the 5’11" Lawson was the Nuggets’ leading scorer and regarded as one of the NBA’s better point guards. At around 1:15 a.m. that morning, Lawson was pulled over for speeding. He was driving a white Mercedes and police clocked him at 61 miles per hour in a 35 mile per hour zone. Through Lawson’s drunken appearance, slurred speech and strong odor of alcohol, officers quickly determined that Lawson was intoxicated. Lawson admitted to officers he had consumed alcohol that evening, and then failed a roadside sobriety test. He was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence and later faced five charges for the incident.
As part of a plea deal reached in November 2015, Lawson pleaded guilty to driving while his ability was impaired. He also pleaded guilty to a lane usage violation. In exchange, three other charges, including DUI—his second alcohol–related offense, were dismissed. Lawson would be sentenced in March 2016 and faced a maximum of 180 days in jail. Lawson’s attorney, Harvey Steinberg, asked Judge Fay to sentence Lawson to probation. Steinberg highlighted that his client was a first-time offender and first-time DUI offenders in Colorado normally receive probation. Prosecutors, in contrast, petitioned Judge Fay to sentence Lawson to jail for 45 days. They reasoned that Lawson’s extensive history of drinking and driving indicated that he posed a public safety risk. They also contended that Lawson needed to learn a lesson.
Judge Fay knew that Lawson’s criminal record between 2008 and 2015 revealed multiple arrests for DUI-related offenses. Worse yet, Lawson didn’t seem deterred by the possibility of being arrested. In fact, despite Lawson’s January 2015 arrest in Denver, Lawson was arrested again in July 2015, when a California Highway Patrol Officer arrested Lawson for suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. It’s almost incomprehensible that Lawson, who earned $12.4 million in the ’15-’16 season, wouldn’t have simply paid for a personal driver or at least called an Uber or taxicab.
On the other hand, Lawson had not been found guilty of offenses connected to those other arrests by the time of Judge Fay’s sentencing hearing in March. As a result, even though Lawson was a repeat DUI arrestee (and domestic violence arrestee), he was a first time DUI offender. Accordingly, Judge Fay sentenced Law to one year of probation plus 48 hours of community service, 52 hours of therapy and recurring sobriety checks. She also decreed that Lawson must avoid alcohol and marijuana. Judge Fay also warned Lawson that while he was technically a first time offender under Colorado law, she was well aware of his past. “You have a terrible history,” Judge Fay told Lawson. “You are going down a bad path.”
Despite Judge Fay’s admonition, Lawson, according to Kirk Mitchell of the Denver Post, has not veered from this so-called “bad path.” Mitchell reports that Lawson has failed three alcohol tests since September 2016. Lawson, according to Mitchell, also failed to perform his required community service.
On March 22 in court, Lawson will need to “show cause” that his probation should not be revoked. If he fails to do so, Judge Fay could rule that Lawson must serve time—most likely a matter of days—in jail. A show cause hearing normally occurs when a probation officer informs the sentencing judge that a defendant who is on probation has violated the conditions of his or her probation. In order to show cause, Lawson must either refute the probation officer’s allegations or admit that the probation officer is correct, but then plead with Judge Fay to give him another chance. Lawson would be more persuasive if he establishes there were mitigating circumstances that might have contributed to any probation violations. For instance, Lawson might claim that he suffered from a medical condition or stress from a family member’s illness. Even then, Judge Fay would be poised to reject any excuses and remind Lawson of her warning to him last March.
The Kings and NBA are poised to take action against Lawson
Judge Fay is not the only “judge” of Lawson. Both Lawson’s employer, the Kings, and the NBA are closely monitoring the situation. Both are surely disappointed to hear that Lawson could be in trouble again. After badly struggling in stints with the Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers last season, Lawson had rebounded with the Kings this season. In 25 minutes per game, he’s averaging 9 points and 5 assists, mostly as a backup to Darren Collison. Lawson is playing for the Kings on the veteran minimum ($1.3 million) after earning $12.4 million last season.
Lawson hoped that a solid ’16-’17 season would re-establish his market value as a free agent in the 2017 off-season. Instead, Lawson faces a potential NBA suspension. The NBA has suspended Lawson twice before for DUI-related arrests (a three-game suspension in January 2016 and a two-game suspension in December 2015). It stands to reason that the league would suspend Lawson once again if Judge Fay rules that he violated the terms of his probation.
The Kings could also cut Lawson and pay him the remainder of his contract, which expires this year. Alternatively, and much less likely, the Kings could void Lawson’s contract and not pay him the remainder of his guaranteed deal. The Kings, however, know that such a move would likely be challenged by the National Basketball Players’ Association, which would be poised to file a grievance on Lawson’s behalf. The NBPA used such a process in 2004, when the Boston Celtics attempted to void the remaining contract of Vin Baker, who, like Lawson, saw alcohol badly interfere with his NBA career. Baker, with the NBPA’s assistance, ultimately worked out a settlement with the Celtics where the Celtics paid him approximately $16 million of the remaining $35 million on Baker’s deal.
Because Lawson is on a relatively low-money contract and because the contract expires later this year, it’s unlikely the Kings would attempt to void Lawson’s deal. Of greater worry to Lawson, however, is whether he’ll get another chance from another NBA team. At some point, he’ll run out of second chances and that point could arrive later this month.
Michael McCann, SI's legal analyst, provides legal and business analysis for The Crossover. He is also an attorney and a tenured law professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.