Thursday, August 15, 1996
Deion's date with justice costs us all

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

So Deion Sanders didn't show up for his first day in court. Or his second. This is the guy who has a customized Mercedes golf cart with vanity plates and a stereo system. He is famous and mouthy and handsome. This is not the point. He also has a lot of money.

The former Reds outfielder will be paid $35 million to play football for the Dallas Cowboys for the next seven years. He moonlights as a spokesjock for Sega, Pizza Hut, Nike and General Mills. I'll bet he travels first class.

But when he was supposed to make a Cincinnati court appearance this week, he didn't show up. Apparently Mr. Sanders has no respect for the law.

Who can blame him?

Aggravated public wealth

Two years ago, an off-duty Cincinnati police officer said Mr. Sanders tried to drive his motor scooter onto a sidewalk reserved for pedestrian traffic. He was charged with resisting arrest, driving without a license, failure to comply and leaving the scene of an accident.

He was not charged with being a rich person in public. That would come later.

The former Reds center fielder says he thought he was arguing with a security guard. Officer Herbert Kohus said he was injured when the football star took off on the bike and dragged him 30 or 40 feet.

The officer went to Christ Hospital, where he was treated for bruises and sprains and released that night.

Several employees of Cincinnati Sportservice Inc. at the stadium have said Mr. Kohus was not caught by the scooter. They said he was running alongside the moving bike, then tripped and fell.

It took the jury of six women and two men less than two hours to decide that they believed Deion Sanders. They found him not guilty of all charges. Then they asked for autographs.

''The jury has spoken,'' Mr. Kohus said afterward, ''and I have to live with their verdict.''

Or maybe not. A month later, he filed a lawsuit against Deion Sanders, seeking $500,000 in punitive damages and $500,000 in compensatory damages.

Gambling on the courts

Police officers should not have to wrestle people to the ground to make arrests. And it seems pretty hard to believe that Mr. Sanders did not realize that he was dealing with a police officer, one who was wearing his uniform, badge and gun.

But a jury found him not guilty, and that might have been the end of it. Except that Mr. Sanders has a lot of money. So he is being sued. That is the American way.

You'd think our civil courts were lottery windows, instead of places where harm can be judged and fairly repaired. This year, for instance, a $2 million suit made its way to the Supreme Court.

The case was about a flawed paint job on a BMW. Despite the fact that it must have been exceedingly painful for the plaintiff, the court ruled that the owner's claim was roughly 500 times the amount of actual harm. So, I guess they thought the paint job was worth about $4,000.

John Rockel, the attorney for Mr. Kohus, said his client was off work for six weeks after the incident, then on light duty for four weeks after that. He's back at work full-time as a plain-clothes police officer and has finished physical therapy.

The problem now is that a protective vest and gunbelt ''makes him sore,'' Mr. Rockel said. So he can't sign up for off-duty details. This will cost him $6,000 a year. The trial will begin Monday.

So, let's say Mr. Kohus is really, really mad and he thinks a half-million dollars would be a fitting punishment for Mr. Sanders. That's the punitive half. The other half is to compensate him for losing the off-duty work. So apparently Mr. Kohus, who is in his mid-50s, had planned to do this for about 83 more years.

This is nuts.

Nobody thinks our courts suffer from disuse, that judges are sitting around playing pinochle waiting for customers. People who need help are waiting behind Mr. Kohus. They shouldn't be penalized for long lines. And Deion Sanders shouldn't be punished for being rich.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.