LOS ANGELES – At a news conference this week, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced the results of his department’s investigation into the car accident that left Tiger Woods seriously injured and his golf career in jeopardy. But Villanueva spent most of his three-minute appearance dismissing the suggestion that his department treated the famous golfer differently than he would anybody else.
“I know there are some saying he received special or preferential treatment of some kind,” Villanueva said. “That is absolutely false.”
That included the suggestion that Woods’s blood should have been tested for drugs or alcohol, after the golfer drove over a median and crossed a lane of traffic at nearly twice the speed limit before slamming his vehicle into a tree. There was “no evidence of any impairment,” a sheriff’s captain said at the news conference. “No open containers in the vehicle and no narcotics or any evidence of medication in the vehicle or on his person.”
But after the news conference, the sheriff’s department posted on its website, with Woods’s permission, its reports concerning the accident. In those 22 pages was a detail the sheriff’s office hadn’t mentioned: that an empty, unlabeled pill bottle had been found in Woods’s backpack at the accident scene. The report also for the first time described Woods appearing disoriented and combative after the crash.
California traffic attorneys consulted by The Washington Post differed on whether the existence of “an empty plastic pharmaceutical container,” as the report described it, should have prompted deputies to attempt to test Woods’s blood to determine whether he was legally under the influence. But the inconsistencies between the department’s news conference and its own reports fueled criticism that Woods’s celebrity had affected the way his case was handled.
Villanueva emphasized that Woods’s crash, in which the golfer suffered severe injuries including a fractured right leg, was “purely an accident.” Even before the investigation concluded, he said there was no evidence suggesting a charge such as reckless driving was warranted. Though data from the car’s “black box” showed that Woods was traveling up to 87 mph in a 45 mph zone at the time of the accident, he was not cited for speeding.
The sheriff’s office focused on the intersection where the crash occurred, pointing out other accidents that had happened there. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office said Friday it had not received from the sheriff any complaints for possible criminal charges against Woods.
The sheriff’s office declined to make Villanueva available for an interview or to answer specific questions for this article. “If you choose to speculate and offer your theory (even though there is no evidence to support your claim), then that is your prerogative,” a representative said in an email without giving their name. “No contradiction exists in what was stated verbally and what is documented in the report.”
On Wednesday, after the sheriff’s office announced it had closed its investigation, Woods tweeted his gratitude to the department, including thanking by name a deputy and two paramedics “for helping me so expertly at the scene and getting me safely to the hospital.” Woods, whose agent did not respond to a request for comment, said in the tweet that he “will continue to focus on my recovery and family.”
Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School who has studied special treatment given to celebrities by police, described handling such cases as a job hazard common to law enforcement officials in Los Angeles. “In L.A., you have to know both how to do your job and how to do your job when there’s a celebrity involved,” Levenson said. “You are put under microscopic scrutiny by the nation.”
Villanueva struggled with that fact of L.A. policing last year, after retired basketball superstar Kobe Bryant and eight others died in a helicopter crash in January 2020. Villanueva warred with gossip site TMZ for breaking the news before his department reached next of kin. Then he was sued by Vanessa Bryant, the basketball star’s widow, who claimed his deputies improperly shared photos of the helicopter accident scene, including using them to impress a woman at a bar.
Levenson said that, in news conferences, Villanueva appeared to give more leeway to Woods than that granted to a normal subject of an investigation. “It did strike me as, ‘I’m deferential to Tiger, I’m going to give him every benefit of the doubt,” Levenson said. “I think most people wonder if they would get the same benefit of the doubt.”
Because the Los Angeles sheriff is an elected position, Levenson said, Villanueva is particularly sensitive to public opinion concerning his handling of a well known and mostly popular figure like Woods. “Law enforcement, to the extent they are elected, are like other politicians,” Levenson said, adding that special treatment is virtually inevitable in a case with a subject as famous and powerful as Woods.
“We are a town of celebrities,” Levenson said. “Some of them might be athletes, some of them might be Hollywood. You can go back decades and find cases where celebrities were treated differently by the police. This is nothing new.”
The reports released Wednesday provided far more details concerning Woods’s accident than the accounts previously given by the sheriff and his deputies. Deputy Carlos Gonzalez told reporters that after the accident Woods was “calm and lucid.” But in his own report, Deputy Kyle Sullivan, who interviewed Woods in a hospital trauma bay, said the golfer did not remember being involved in a traffic accident and “thought he was currently in the state of Florida.” A Los Angeles Fire Department captain on the scene also described Woods as “somewhat combative,” but said his demeanor was consistent with his traumatic injury.
In another report, Gonzalez said he found the pill bottle in the front pocket of a backpack “resting in the brush” next to Woods’s crashed car. “The container had no label and there was no indication as to what, if anything, had been inside,” the report read.
The Washington Post consulted with three attorneys who specialize in traffic cases and reviewed the full reports. Hart Levin, a Los Angeles lawyer who mostly handles DUI cases, said the investigation of Woods’s accident was “highly irregular” in the lack of effort made to test his blood.
Levin said that in his experience, a pill bottle on the scene is considered a “dead giveaway” to police: “Even if there was nothing to it, it’s probable cause.”
Levin said that the other circumstances of the accident would also typically make an investigating officer suspicious. “It’s an egregious accident that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Levin said. “He’s going double the speed limit and he flies off the road in the middle of the day. The police view is going to be either he’s doing it on purpose, which does not seem to be the case here, or he’s probably on something.”
The lawyer said it looked like the deputies did him a favor: “This is the Tiger effect.”
Other California traffic lawyers disagreed. David Wayne Brown, a Monterey County attorney who wrote a book on fighting traffic tickets in the state, said that because the pill bottle was empty and unlabeled, it had little evidentiary value. “In my opinion, that’s really not enough to get a search warrant,” Brown said.
“He may have gotten special treatment on not being cited for speeding,” Brown said, but added that police departments have varying informal policies on whether they ticket drivers who have been in serious single-car accidents.
L.A.-based DUI attorney Myles Berman also said the pill bottle should not have prompted deputies to test Woods’s blood. He added that the sheriff’s office would have had a problem upholding a speeding ticket based only on the black box data because there was “no clear visual evidence” of Woods breaking the law.
This isn’t Woods’s first brush with traffic law. In 2017, a police officer found Woods asleep behind the wheel of his car on a road in his Florida neighborhood. “Woods stated that he did not know where he was,” according to a police report, and a urine test showed he had five medications including Vicodin and Ambien in his system. He entered a diversion program and avoided a DUI conviction.
In the news conference, Villanueva shot down the idea that Woods’s DUI history could have spurred his department to seek a search warrant. “History does not get you the elements you need to establish probable cause,” Villanueva said, “so I’ll leave it at that.”
Following the accident, the sheriff’s office released a list of 13 other accidents, causing four injuries, that had happened at the intersection where Woods crashed since 2020. Only two of them were single-car accidents. While it appeared from the records that two of the drivers were cited for violations, the sheriff’s office declined to provide any more records or information concerning the cases.