Commentary

Free, but not easy for Vick

Three-year probation can be a slippery slope back to prison if he isn't careful

Originally Published: July 20, 2009
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

Michael Vick's 23-month prison sentence has come to an end. He now faces three years of "supervised release" as he tries to return to the NFL. As a convicted felon under the control of federal probation officials, Vick still faces questions about his legal status. Here are some of the questions, and the answers:

How much supervision is there in "supervised release?"

For the next three years, Vick must report at least monthly to his probation officer. For the first few months, he will report to that officer in person. Later, if Vick stays out of trouble and qualifies for a category known as "low-risk offender," he can submit his monthly report by mail and check in by telephone. He must also submit monthly financial statements with detailed reports of his income and expenditures. Vick is already submitting detailed financial reports to his creditors and to the judge presiding over his bankruptcy. He could easily submit the same bankruptcy reports to the probation department. If he follows the rules, the probation officer's role in Vick's life becomes less intrusive. But for the next 36 months, his status on supervised release or probation is something that he will encounter nearly every day.

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick
AP Photo/Jason HirschfeldProbation means Michael Vick will need to stay on the straight and narrow if he wants to avoid a return to prison.

Now that he is free from custody, can Vick travel wherever he wishes?

No. If he wishes to leave his home in Hampton, Va., to travel anywhere within the continental U.S., he must obtain permission from his probation officer. If he wishes, for example, to travel to the office of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in New York to appeal his suspension, he must obtain permission, a process than can take a week or more. If he wishes to travel to Canada to visit a CFL team, he must obtain permission from U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson in Richmond. As the judge who sentenced Vick, Hudson retains total control over all travel outside the U.S. If Vick were able to make a deal to play in the CFL, Hudson would have the final say.

Will Vick be tested for drugs while he is on supervised release?

Yes. Probation officials routinely test for drugs. The test may be scheduled in advance, or it may be on a surprise visit. Federal probation officials test for all varieties of recreational drugs. If Goodell reinstates him, Vick would be in a second drug-testing program with tests for recreational drugs and performance-enhancing drugs.

What happens if Vick tests positive for drugs or fails to meet the requirements of supervised release?

A positive drug test or any other violation of probation (failure to report or a late financial report) would result in a quick return to the penitentiary. The probation officer begins the process with a report to the prosecutors in Richmond who investigated and charged Vick. Vick would then be required to appear before Judge Hudson, the judge who forced him to wear a striped inmate uniform at his sentencing and then, relying on a positive drug test (marijuana), sentenced him to a term longer than the prosecutors recommended. It is the last place Vick wants to be. A charge of violating probation is difficult, if not impossible, to defend. Unlike a charge of a crime, the government is not required to prove the charge beyond a reasonable doubt. Prosecutors need to offer only a preponderance of the evidence, a showing that the violation alleged is more probably true than not true. Within the federal court system, violations of federal probation are frequent and costly. More than 40 percent of the prisoners arriving at federal prisons each month have been found guilty of a violation of probation.

What else should concern Vick as he enters this phase of the dogfighting case?

In addition to staying clean, Vick must stay away from guns and gambling. The case against him included evidence of drugs, guns, and high-stakes wagering. A return to any of these activities would result in a violation of supervised release and a return to the penitentiary.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.