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Lawyers: Sheriff too aggressive in Phelps case?

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Even if a South Carolina sheriff is successful in building a marijuana case against Michael Phelps, it might be hard to make the charges stick, defense attorneys say.

The case took a turn yesterday when lawyers for two people said their clients were among eight arrested last week and questioned at length about the November party near the University of South Carolina where Phelps was photographed smoking from a marijuana pipe. At the time, the men were renters at the house.

The effort to prosecute Phelps on what would be at most a minor drug charge seem extreme compared to similar cases, lawyers said, and have led some to question whether the sheriff is being overzealous because he's dealing with a celebrity.

"The efforts that are being made here are unlike anything I've ever seen before," said Jack Swerling, a defense attorney in South Carolina. "I know [Richland County Sheriff] Leon Lott, I know him to be an honorable guy. I've known him for 30-something years. But the efforts here are extraordinary on simple possession cases. "

After the photo of Phelps was published Feb. 1, Lott said his office would investigate and possibly charge Phelps, though officials have not specified what the offense might be. Since then, authorities have released little information, and the sheriff's department refused to talk again yesterday.

Lott has made fighting drug crimes a central plank of his career. He rose from patrol officer to captain of the narcotics division in the early 1990s and was well-known for wearing stylish suits like the agents on "Miami Vice" and driving a Porsche seized from a drug dealer. He was elected sheriff in 1996.

Lawyers for the two men say they were questioned almost exclusively about Phelps and charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession.

Authorities haven't contacted the swimmer, who issued an apology for his behavior earlier this month, one of his agents said.

Chip Price, a Greenville attorney who has dealt with drug cases for 33 years said, "Never have I seen anything like this on a simple marijuana case."

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