With promises to continue treatment for alcohol abuse and to help others avoid his mistakes, Michael Phelps pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in Baltimore District Court on Friday and came away with a one-year suspended sentence and 18 months of supervised probation.
In a result experts predicted, the Olympic swimming great avoided jail time despite the fact his Sept. 30 arrest for drunken driving was his second.
“The last three months of my life have been some of the hardest times I’ve ever gone through,” Phelps said on the courthouse steps after his hearing. “Some of the biggest learning experiences that I’ve ever had, finding out a lot about myself. For this day, I’m happy to be moving forward, and I’ll continue to grow from this. I’ll continue on my path of recovery. The next couple years are going to be very challenging, and I’m very pleased and very happy that I have great support around me.”
He was surrounded by family members and friends, including former Ravens star Ray Lewis.
District Court judge Nathan Braverman praised Phelps’ rapid embrace of treatment and said he’s optimistic the swimmer will not repeat the same mistake.
“Clearly, you don’t need a lecture from this court,” Braverman said, though he added that if Phelps doesn’t get the message this time, “the only thing the court has left in its toolbox is jail.”
As part of his 18-month probation, to be supervised by the state’s Drinking Driver Monitor Program, Phelps, 29, cannot use alcohol or drugs at all. His driver’s license has been suspended for two months and will remain so until at least January. Phelps will be allowed to travel and train while on probation.
Defense attorney Steven A. Allen painted Phelps as contrite and eager to embrace counseling as the swimmer originally from Rodgers Forge trains vigorously for a shot at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“I think this has driven home, in a very meaningful way to him, what needs to be done,” Allen said. “I have the greatest degree of confidence this will never happen again.”
Phelps will remain suspended from competition by USA Swimming until early April and won’t be eligible to compete in FINA World Championships in August. But he resumed training with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club shortly after he returned from an Arizona treatment facility last month and plans to race sometime in 2015.
Phelps emerged from a green Mercedes on Friday morning, wearing a dark suit with a deep blue tie and black-rimmed glasses. He was clean-shaven and generally maintained an impassive expression through the proceedings.
He was joined at the hearing by his mother, Debbie, his two sisters and other friends including Lewis. Phelps and Lewis shared a warm embrace after they emerged from the courtroom.
“Mr. Lewis and Mr. Phelps are very close friends,” Allen said. “Mr. Phelps appreciated the support Mr. Lewis showed by being here today. They speak frequently, and it really speaks highly of Ray Lewis that he would come here today in support of his close friend.”
Lewis did not address reporters as he exited the courthouse.
At about 1:40 a.m. on Sept. 30, Maryland Transit Authority Police stopped Phelps outside the Fort McHenry Tunnel after clocking him at 84 mph in a 45-mph zone. He was charged with DUI, excessive speed and crossing double lane lines. His blood-alcohol level was 0.14 percent, and he failed field sobriety tests, police said. The state's legal limit is 0.08 percent.
Maryland Transportation Authority Police, in response to a public information act request from The Baltimore Sun, released footage Friday from the Fort McHenry Tunnel that showed Phelps’ vehicle changing lanes, at one point appearing to cut off a tractor trailer. They also released footage of Phelps being taken into and inside of a police station.
Spokeswoman Kelly Melhem said dashboard camera footage from the officer who arrested Phelps was not available because it “was not functioning properly.” They released instead footage from an officer who arrived as backup, though little can be seen due to the emergency lights from the first officer’s vehicle.”
On Friday, Phelps pleaded guilty to “driving under the influence per se,” essentially acknowledging the accuracy of the blood-alcohol test. As part of Phelps’ plea arrangement, prosecutor Christine Tacka did not move forward with the other charges.
Phelps previously pleaded guilty to driving while impaired after a 2004 arrest in Wicomico County, when he was 19. He received probation before judgment rather than a conviction in that case.
He avoided jail this time in part because of the 10-year gap between his arrests and also because he did not cause an accident and entered treatment rapidly, of his own accord.
“Overall, this is a pretty standard sentence,” said Scott Richman, an attorney with Miles & Stockbridge who prosecuted hundreds of DUI cases during a two-year stint as head of the traffic division for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office. “The fact that it’s a conviction and the entire sentence is hanging over his head if he violates probation — it’s pretty fair.”
Richman added Phelps will need to be extremely careful during his probation, given the court-ordered ban on alcohol use and the number of eyes on him in every public setting.
During Friday’s hearing, new details emerged about Phelps’ activities since his arrest. Allen said the swimmer spent 45 days receiving treatment for alcohol abuse at The Meadows, an in-patient facility in Arizona.
“During my 45-day program, I was able to find out a lot about myself, a lot that I never knew,” Phelps told the court. “I feel I now have the tools to move past this.”
He said he would also share his experiences with children and others to help them avoid the mistakes he has made.
When Phelps returned to Baltimore in the third week of November, he transitioned to a Towson-based aftercare program, recommended by doctors at The Meadows. He has participated in weekly sessions there and plans to continue regular counseling for alcohol abuse for at least six months. He has also begun attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Allen said.
Phelps had previously revealed only that he was attending an in-patient treatment program to work on his personal life.
Allen said Phelps is “in the process of training for the upcoming Olympic Games,” something the swimming world assumed but which Phelps had never specified.
Phelps acknowledged Friday that his arrest and court hearing were humiliating experiences, but he stressed that he is trying to move forward.
“I’m looking ahead at a much better, brighter future than what I’ve had in the past,” he said.
Baltimore Sun staff writer Justin Fenton contributed to this article.