MINNEAPOLIS -- Dustin Byfuglien has resolved his criminal trial in much the same way he's becoming known for playing hockey -- leaving a trail of mystery, debate and controversy in his wake.
The talented but sometimes frustrating Winnipeg Jets defenceman walked into a downtown Minneapolis courthouse Monday morning expecting to begin a week-long jury trial. But he skated out of danger less than an hour later, courtesy of a last-minute plea bargain that leaves many questions unanswered, including what prompted authorities to believe he was boating while impaired last summer.
Byfuglien pleaded guilty to a misdemeanour charge of careless boating, which pertains only to the fact he didn't have proper lighting on his boat when stopped by police last summer. He was given a $1,000 fine and 30-day jail sentence, of which 28 days were suspended and two days converted to community service work. In exchange, prosecutors dropped more serious charges of impaired boating and refusing a blood or urine test.
The suspended time would only be revisited if Byfuglien reoffends during that period.
Byfuglien agreed to complete a day-long driving-under-the-influence program despite the fact the impaired-related charges were dropped. Defence lawyer Mitchell Robinson proclaimed the resolution a legal victory for his client, who quietly answered "Yes" when asked if he was happy with the outcome but offered no other comments. Robinson said the prosecutor had a sudden change in heart after considering the file over the weekend, along with a motion that sought to have the case tossed, arguing Byfuglien's rights were violated.
"I think when they had an opportunity to review the motion to dismiss they saw this in a different light," Robinson said outside court.
The only source of disagreement in court was how Byfuglien should fulfil community service. Robinson had requested he be allowed to do something in line with his talents as a professional hockey player, rather than the typical type of work done by offenders.
"I think the community would be better served by having Mr. Byfuglien signing autographs or doing a hockey camp than taking out the trash," Robinson said. But district court Judge Ronald Abrams agreed with the prosecutor's submission that Byfuglien be required to do regular grunt duties like other offenders would, which justice officials in Minnesota call "workhouse."
"Throughout this case I've said I think Mr. Byfuglien should be treated the same as everyone else," said Abrams. No specific timetable was set for completion of the community service.
Byfuglien was accompanied in court Monday by his agent, Ben Hankinson, who kept the mood light by joking with him prior to the judge entering the court. At one point he even straightened his multimillionaire client's tie.
Following the sentencing, Hankinson insisted this case won't impact Byfuglien's career. A similar sentiment appeared to be shared by Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, who issued a written statement hours after court ended.
"After allowing the legal process to play out, we are thankful to see this matter resolved to the satisfaction of all parties involved. As an organization, the Winnipeg Jets are happy this is behind Dustin and he can look forward to the upcoming hockey season, along with the rest of the team and their passionate fan base," Cheveldayoff said.
Byfuglien faced a maximum one-year jail sentence and would have had to apply in writing to the Canadian government for a temporary-resident permit to enter the country if he had been convicted of the original charges.
Byfuglien has always been an enigma in the hockey world. He is a massive athlete who has played both forward and defence -- a rarity in the National Hockey League -- and is equipped with world-class talent but whose fitness and motivation have become lightning rods for criticism. Monday's court appearance and resolution will likely only add to the stigma, especially with the plea bargain meaning certain facts and evidence will never be fully established.
The prosecution had intended to prove Byfuglien was high on drugs when he was arrested last August on Lake Minnetonka and charged with four offences after being spot-checked for not having the proper lights on his craft. The evidence was expected to include testimony from the two arresting officers and a drug expert who would have testified about Byfuglien's behaviour and appearance, including a brownish stain on his tongue. Prosecutors never revealed what substances they thought Byfuglien ingested, only referring to them as "a central nervous system stimulant and a central nervous system depressant."
Byfuglien provided a pair of breathalyzer tests immediately after his arrest and registered 0.031 and 0.024, well under the Minnesota legal limit of 0.08. A drug expert examined him at the police station and demanded a blood or urine test to try to determine the source of the alleged impairment. Byfuglien declined, but consented to the test 72 minutes later after consulting with Robinson. Police told him it was too late and proceeded with the charges.
Robinson claims Byfuglien changed his mind "within a reasonable time frame" upon exercising his right to contact an attorney. Robinson said Byfuglien then should have been tested, claiming the results would have proven he wasn't high on an illegal substance. Robinson said the brief passage of time between refusing, then consenting, would not have been enough to rid Byfuglien's system of any intoxicants.
Byfuglien said he had taken a muscle relaxant that day but couldn't remember its name. He said he also took a "handful" of supplements from 16 or 17 different bottles but didn't know their names either.
Byfuglien's case comes on the heels of teammate Ondrej Pavelec's conviction in the Czech Republic for impaired driving. The Jets' goaltender was arrested in May after crashing his BMW and found to have a blood-alcohol reading of 0.20. He pleaded guilty last month and was given a six-month suspended sentence and 20-month driving ban.