Aldon Smith's Possible Legal Troubles Shouldn't Affect 49ers' Super Bowl Hopes

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistSeptember 6, 2013

Aug 8, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith (99) on the sideline during the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos at Candlestick Park. The Denver Broncos defeated the San Francisco 49ers 10-6. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Just days before the San Francisco 49ers open their NFC championship defense against the Green Bay Packers, their biggest defensive star could again find himself in legal hot water. 

Reports surfaced Tuesday that a man, Ronndale Esporlaswas suing 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith and Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker after being allegedly shot at a house party in June of 2012. Tony Kovaleski of NBC Bay Area first reported the lawsuit, which was filed in the Santa Clara County Court.

Esporlas' suit claims he was caught in the crossfire of a shooting spree from Walker and Smith, who were allegedly using illegal guns. It's not clear who shot Esporlas, who was a guest at the party. However, he names the two NFLers as codefendants because they were seen shooting guns while inebriated. 

If this crazy party from June of 2012 sounds familiar, that's because it should. Smith suffered "minor" injuries after being stabbed at the party, though he didn't miss any significant time on the field. Authorities also responded to multiple calls from neighbors about the "pretty chaotic" party. Residents alleged gunshots were heard after 2 a.m.

There were multiple gunshot victims taken to the hospital after the party, but none have complied with investigators. Esporlas' suit alleges that Walker was the aggressor, firing shots at partygoers from the driveway, which resulted in crossfire being sent back and Esporlas getting hit.

While the allegations are pretty damning—Esporlas claims "serious, catastrophic and permanent injuries”—casting any aspersions on what happened that night would be shortsighted.

We've become conditioned in the aftermath of Aaron Hernandez's first-degree murder charge to expect the worst from these situations.

But it's equally fair to suggest that this could be the latest in a long line of athlete extortion claims. 

Smith told officers that he fired only one shot into the air, which was meant to break up a fight. Ballistics tests have also cleared Walker and Smith of shooting Esporlas, though their liability in civil court is still very much in the air. 

Either way, Smith has far bigger concerns than a possible civil payment: possible criminal charges on illegal gun possession. Tracy Kaplan and Mark Gomez of the San Jose Mercury News reported Thursday that the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office is leaning toward charging the All-Pro linebacker with possessing illegal guns.

According to the report, Smith purchased the weapons in Arizona and has them registered there legally. However, California's gun laws differ from Arizona's, and Smith failed to comply with the laws by getting them into regulation. The charges carry a range of punishments from simple probation to three years' imprisonment. 

Again, I'm going to plead "court of law" here in rendering an opinion. We have a justice system for a reason, folks.

What is examinable—at least in theory—is what this fiasco means on the football field. The 49ers would certainly be up a creek without a paddle if their star 23-year-old linebacker was convicted of illegal gun possession and had the book thrown at him. After all, the Mercury News' report noted pressure within the district attorney's office to treat Smith and other celebrities like a regular citizen.

Could Smith get Plaxico'd? That's wholly possible. But the legal system poses almost zero threat to Smith or the 49ers' run this season. 

Even if Smith does get hit with an illegal weapons charge, he's very unlikely to see trial during the 2013 season.

The legal system in this country moves at its own pace, one usually most comparable to a snail, turtle or some other slow, slithering animal. Citizens have the right to a "speedy trial" per the Constitution, but there's no real impetus on either side to make this thing speed along. 

He would probably have to appear in court for arraignments, probable cause hearings, etc. But courts aren't open on Sundays or at nighttime; the most he'd miss is a relatively meaningless midweek practice. All of this also assumes no settlement is reached.

Either way, there's no conceivable scenario that the criminal trial has any major effect on San Francisco.

At most he misses a few practices for a court date or two. At best, he settles with the prosecutors quickly on lessened charges that only carry probation. Both scenarios having him lining up at outside linebacker on Sundays.

The place to watch in this case is actually the commissioner's office. Roger Goodell's controversial player conduct policy can't be looking too fondly on this case. Smith has already had a run-in with the law with a 2012 DUI arrest, and the conversation on guns and gun safety has to be awfully prescient in the NFL offices at the moment.

It's certainly possible that Goodell suspends Smith amid these allegations. 

Even still, there is ample evidence that Goodell will keep a hands-off approach—at least until the criminal investigation plays itself out.

Unlike when he first initiated the player conduct policy, the NFL's commissioner has slowly backed away from his consistent hard-line stance on off-the-field behavior. More and more, Goodell has looked on teams to handle their own business, likely in part because of constant accusations of him overstepping his bounds.

Aaron Berry and Kenny Britt were the last two players suspended under the player-conduct policy. Both men had multiple incidents involving police, yet they received a total of four games. This is a different commissioners office than the one that docked Terrelle Pryor five games, essentially for violating NCAA bylaws.

No players were suspended this offseason for off-the-field violations.

So it's at least fair to say it's more likely than not—barring any more major revelations—that Smith gets to play the entire 2013 season. And even if he's suspended, anything longer than one or two games would be borderline astounding.

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