At any time, anyone can potentially find themselves on the wrong side of the law, regardless of whether they’re famous or not. For a celebrity, their fame as much as their actions may be at the heart of their legal problems. When a high-profile individual finds themselves in a situation that could lead to hefty fines or jail time, the scandal is typically impossible to hide from the media and, as a result, their fans. Their legal issues are often highly scrutinized, and they find themselves tried not only in the courtroom with an attorney present but in the court of public opinion as well. Depending on the specifics surrounding the situation, this can lead to the end of one’s career and reputation.
The types of legal cases faced by celebrities vary, with some more notable and having a greater impact than others. Often, cases become famous due to the severity of the crime, one’s level of celebrity, or both. In general, this means the greater the crime and the more famous the celebrity, the more it will grab the attention of the media and the public. This is illustrated in the murder trial of the former athlete, sports commentator, and actor O.J. Simpson. The trial centered around the vicious murder of Simpson’s ex-wife and a young waiter outside of her Southern California home in 1994. The trial was one of the first to be highly sensationalized by the media, from the now-infamous low-speed car chase to the theatrics in the courtroom. The trial was televised in its entirety, and more than 50 percent of Americans tuned in to watch what was widely considered the trial of the century, forgoing their regular TV viewing. Due to the savvy actions of his criminal defense team and improper handling of evidence by police, Simpson was ultimately found not guilty by the jury. The case resulted in an increased awareness of domestic violence and is believed to have helped the passage of several laws, including the Violence Against Women Act, which was passed by Congress in 1994. The case also had an impact on how lawyers regarded the media and the role that they play in swaying public opinion about their clients and their cases, particularly those involving celebrities.
The Phil Spector murder trial was another famous celebrity murder case. Music producer Spector was accused of murdering actress Lana Clarkson in his home in 2003. The initial trial ended in a mistrial in 2007; however, the case was retried starting in October 2008 and ending in April 2009. The second trial resulted in a second-degree murder conviction and a sentence of 19 years to life. Yet another famous celebrity murder trial was the 2005 trial and acquittal of actor Robert Blake for the murder of his wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley.
However, not all high-profile cases are related to homicides. The landmark legal case of Marvin vs. Marvin was the first palimony lawsuit. In 1976, Michelle Triola Marvin, a former nightclub singer, won a California Supreme Court ruling that allowed unmarried individuals to sue their partners for an equal division of property due to an implied contract. She sued actor Lee Marvin, her ex-boyfriend, who she had lived with for several years. The trial, which took 11 weeks, ended in a defeat for Michelle Marvin, but she was granted $104,000 in palimony. However, that award was then blocked by an appeals court.
In another famous case, popular talk show host Oprah Winfrey was sued by the Texas Beef Group in 1996. The group claimed that an episode of her syndicated show resulted in a drop in beef sales. In the episode in question, the Humane Society of the United States discussed mad cow disease and Winfrey commented on not wanting to eat another burger. Winfrey, who felt the suit was meant to silence her freedom of speech, was found not guilty.
In 2005, Michael Jackson stood trial on child molestation, conspiracy, and alcohol charges in California. The case, which was highly publicized, ended with the pop star being found innocent of all charges.
In 2003, in yet another high-profile case, entrepreneur and television personality Martha Stewart was indicted for security fraud and obstruction of justice. She was found guilty in 2004 of one count of conspiracy, two counts of making false statements about the sale of ImClone stock, and one count of obstruction of justice. She would serve five months in prison and another five months of home confinement. Stewart was also fined and sentenced to two years of probation.
In more recent news, actor and comedian Bill Cosby, who had been accused by multiple women of sexual assault over the course of his career, faced these criminal charges in court beginning in 2017. The first trial ended in a mistrial, but he was then tried in 2018 on three counts of aggravated indecent assault and found guilty on all counts in April.
Celebrities often find themselves facing certain types of legal action more often than others. These lawsuits may stem from situations that involve run-ins with paparazzi or copyright infringement. The relationship between the paparazzi and celebrities is often a contentious one. In the United States, with the exception of California’s anti-paparazzi laws that prevent photographers from behaviors such as trespassing on personal property or chasing celebrities in cars, paparazzi have a right to photograph celebrities in almost any circumstances. This has led to legal problems between overzealous photographers and frustrated celebrities. Rapper Kanye West and singer Justin Beiber are just two example of celebrities whose encounters with paparazzi have led to lawsuits. In 2015, for example, West settled a lawsuit that arose from his attack of a photographer at Los Angeles International Airport in 2013. Beiber has also been sued for assaulting paparazzi, and he, too, settled.
Copyright infringement is a problem for many celebrities in the creative arts. This has plagued the music industry for decades. For instance, the Beach Boys were sued by musician Chuck Berry’s lawyers for plagiarizing his song “Sweet Little Sixteen” to create “Surfin’ U.S.A.” More recently, Robin Thicke was sued by the family of Marvin Gaye. The suit claimed that Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines” infringed on Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up.” R&B singer Drake was accused by musician Jimmy Smith of violating copyright when he sampled “Jimmy Smith Rap.” In this case, however, Drake was found innocent, as his use of the sample fell under the protection of fair use.
Actors, directors, and other creatives are also susceptible to lawsuits associated with the use of intellectual property. For example, LeVar Burton was sued by the current owners of Reading Rainbow for copyright and trademark infringement over the use of a similar slogan. Celebrities have even been sued by photographers for posting photos of themselves that were taken by the photographer.
As a result of their fame, celebrities also find themselves in situations that require them to sue others. Famous individuals can find themselves in situations where they need to defend their name and the brand that they’ve built around it. Cases like this may lead them to file defamation suits, such as the libel action filed by actor James Woods against an anonymous Twitter user in 2015 after being accused of having a drug addiction.
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