LAPD was right not to investigate Will Smith for ‘slap heard around the world,’ experts say

By the time Will Smith made it back to his seat after smacking Chris Rock across the face in front of a stunned Oscars audience, armchair legal scholars had taken to social media with their hot takes on whether the theatrical slap amounted to a crime.

And the twittering masses erupted in debate again hours later when the Los Angeles Police Department announced it was not investigating the matter because Rock had declined to pursue criminal charges.

On Monday, with the debate raging on, criminal defense attorneys, former prosecutors and other criminal justice experts, reached a more sober and informed consensus that the LAPD had been right to steer clear of the assault, dubbed online as “the slap heard around the world.”

Because the incident amounted to little more than a bar spat — one in which the victim, Rock, wasn’t seriously injured and no weapons were used — the only viable charge against Smith would be misdemeanor battery, according to criminal defense attorney Alan Jackson, a former Los Angeles County prosecutor.

“To be arrested on a misdemeanor, it has to happen in front of the authorities,” Jackson said, “or conversely the person against whom” the crime was allegedly committed has to file a formal complaint with police.

As such, even though the incident was witnessed by countless millions worldwide who tuned in to watch the Oscars, a case against Smith was unlikely to proceed without Rock’s involvement, Jackson said.

The rules are different in the case of a felony such as sexual assault, or other crimes for which a conviction would garner a prison sentence of at least a year, he said.

Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson echoed Jackson, saying she had been surprised by the talk of charging Smith against Rock’s wishes.

“Technically it is an assault. Technically you could bring a criminal charge. But maybe Mr. Smith is just lucky that Mr. Rock had a clearer head on this than he did,” she said. “Not every bad act becomes a criminal case, and by not bringing a criminal case I don’t think anybody is sanctioning or anybody is saying what Will Smith did is appropriate,” she said.

If anything, Levenson said, all the hand-wringing over Smith and Rock revealed a double standard ingrained in a criminal justice system in which victims of more serious violent crimes who have far less clout or money than Rock are routinely overlooked.

“Frankly we have a lot of priorities in the criminal justice system and I don’t think a criminal case in this one is that priority,” said Levenson, a former federal prosecutor.

On Sunday night, Rock, who has twice previously hosted the awards ceremony, was in the middle of presenting the documentary Oscar when he made a joke suggesting that Smith’s wife, who was in the audience, could play a role in “G.I. Jane 2,” referring to the 1997 film starring Demi Moore as a soldier with a shaved head.

Jada Pinkett Smith, who has a shaved head, disclosed in 2018 she had developed alopecia and has been public about her struggles with the hair-loss condition.

After cameras captured him appearing to laugh initially at the joke, Smith strode onstage and slapped Rock hard. He then returned to his seat and shouted at the comedian to “Keep my wife’s name out your f— mouth!”

The time-delayed feed of the ceremony on ABC bleeped out the obscenity, although clips from uncensored overseas telecasts quickly ricocheted across the internet.

Much of the online sniping that followed centered around speculation that had the fracas been between average Joes, instead of Hollywood royalty, authorities might have responded differently.

Lou Shapiro, a criminal defense attorney and former public defender, doesn’t think so, saying he doesn’t believe Smith received special treatment because of his celebrity status.

“On a simple battery with no injury, LAPD is not deviating from the norm on this one,” Shapiro said. “Unless it’s a domestic violence case, they’re more likely not going to use resources on it, because if the victim is not going to pursue charges, then who are we protecting at this point?”

When he was announced shortly after the row as the winner of the actor award, Smith apologized to the academy and his fellow nominees during a tearful and rambling acceptance speech. Like Richard Williams, the father of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams who Smith portrayed in the film “King Richard,” Smith said he saw it as his calling to protect his family. He later apologized to Rock in a post on his Instagram page.

Some time after the ceremony, the LAPD issued a brief statement saying it — like the rest of the world — was “aware of an incident between two individuals during the Academy Awards program. The incident involved one individual slapping another. The individual involved has declined to file a police report.”

The statement read that if Rock “desires a police report at a later date, LAPD will be available to complete an investigative report.”

A department spokesman later told The Times there was no deadline to file a complaint and that it would “complete a report at any time in the future.”

Whether Smith’s conduct will have consequences outside the legal realm remains to be seen.

On Monday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences issued a statement condemning Smith’s actions, and said it had “started a formal review around the incident and will explore further action and consequences in accordance with our bylaws, standards of conduct and California law.”

In 2017, the organization unveiled a code of conduct policy for its members, which it said was intended for “upholding the Academy’s values,” in the wake of a series of sexual misconduct scandals that rocked the film industry.

Jackson, the former prosecutor, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Rock’s reluctance to press the issue brought a collective sigh of relief from within the LAPD that an investigation involving two Hollywood A-listers — and the accompanying media frenzy — could be avoided.

“I can’t imagine that any detective wants to be the guy or the gal that leads the case on the investigation of the slap that was heard around the world,” he said.

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