NEW YORK — A driving-while-high case against Tennessee Titans backup quarterback Chris Simms was built out of a big misconception, his lawyer told jurors Monday.
Authorities say Simms told a police officer he'd been smoking marijuana before being stopped July 1 in his Mercedes-Benz SUV. But Simms' lawyers say he actually said one of his passengers had been smoking the drug.
"What this case is about is a rush to judgment," attorney Harvey A. Steinberg said in an opening statement.
But prosecutors and police say there was ample evidence that Simms, a son of former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, was in no shape to drive when pulled over at a sobriety checkpoint in Manhattan at about 1 a.m.
He made a tire-squealing, "wild" turn just before the checkpoint, Officer Francisco Acosta testified Monday. Once stopped, Simms slurred his words, walked unsteadily and said there wasn't any marijuana left in the car because "he smoked it all in the car," Acosta told jurors.
"He was out of it. Like a zombie," the officer said Monday. He added that the marijuana reek from the SUV was so strong that it gave him a headache and made his tongue numb, a reaction he said he'd had before to the drug's smoke.
After Simms was taken to a police station, he promptly passed out on a holding-cell floor, prosecutor Alexandra Glazer added in an opening statement.
An alcohol breath test came back negative, and Simms declined a urine test that could have shown drug use, if any.
Acosta said he heard Simms' wife, Danielle, advising him not to take any tests. Steinberg said Simms refused because he was angry that he was being arrested first and tested later. He felt his character would be tarnished by publicity about the arrest, the lawyer said.
"'I can't get my reputation back,'" Simms thought, according to his lawyer.
The night began when Simms, his wife — then eight months' pregnant with their daughter, Charlotte — and two male friends went out to dinner, Steinberg said.
They were headed to trendy Balthazar for dessert when Simms decided to stop by another friend's 40th birthday party, Steinberg said. While Simms made a quick appearance at the party, his passengers stayed with his car, and one of the friends smoked marijuana, the attorney said. That friend will testify, Steinberg said.
"'What are you guys doing? Get rid of this stuff!'" Simms told his friends when he returned, Steinberg said. The group went on to Balthazar and was stopped after leaving the eatery, he said.
Simms told police "the guy in the back seat smoked marijuana," said Steinberg, a Denver-based lawyer who often represents football players. He's arguing that authorities should have questioned the passengers to determine what had happened.
Simms and his lawyers declined to comment as they left court. He told The Tennessean newspaper last summer that the arrest was embarrassing to him and his family.
"I always try and look at myself as a high-character guy, and I hope I don't get judged off this incident. But I think, in the end, everything will be OK," he told the paper.
The 30-year-old Simms could face up to a year in jail if convicted in the misdemeanor case. In January, he turned down an offer to avoid any jail time by pleading guilty to driving while impaired, a non-criminal violation. His punishment would have included a $500 fine and five days of community service.
Besides the legal consequences, a conviction or any guilty plea that entailed admitting smoking marijuana could subject Simms to a suspension under NFL policies.
A third-round draft pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2003, he ruptured his spleen in a 2006 game against the Carolina Panthers and had to undergo emergency surgery.
After Tampa Bay released him, he went to Tennessee in 2008, played for the Denver Broncos in 2009 as an unrestricted free agent and then returned to the Titans. The Titans released him in September but then re-signed him in November. He has a 7-9 record in his 16 NFL career starts; he didn't play in any games this season.
With players locked out amid a contract dispute with the league, all teams' plans for next season are in limbo. The Titans declined to comment on Simms' trial.
Simms' father played 14 seasons with the Giants, leading them to two Super Bowls. He is now a CBS Sports announcer and analyst.