Reprieve: Appeals court to hear Robinsons

George and Elisa Robinson got a break in their fight to escape 27-month jail sentences for serving booze to minors. The full Virginia Court of Appeals agreed to hear their case June 21 after a three-judge panel turned down their request in May.

The case rocked the area in early 2003 when a Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judge, branding them a threat to the community, sentenced the couple to eight years for providing alcohol at their son's 16th birthday party.

After they were hauled off to jail in shackles, the couple (they've since divorced) appealed to Albemarle Circuit Court, where on September 3, 2003, Judge Paul Peatross sentenced them to a still-unprecedented 27 months in jail. Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos had requested 90 days.

"I think it's significant the full court wants to hear it and thinks it's important," says Jonathan Wren, George Robinson's attorney.

The Robinsons argue that the search of their Earlysville house and seizure of evidence– $350 worth of beer and designer drinks– from the backyard were illegal.

"That's considered curtilage"– the area immediately surrounding one's house– "and it's entitled to the same privacy as your house," explains Fran Lawrence, attorney for Lisa Robinson.

Albemarle police received three phone calls August 16, 2002, reporting an underage drinking party at the couple's Bleak House Road home. When Corporal Scott Cox arrived to investigate, he testified that he spied two teens drinking what appeared to be beer. When they saw the police officer, they yelled, "Cops," and took off into the woods.

Two of the justices disagreed with the Robinson attorneys' contention that the search was unconstitutional because the area where Cox observed the beer drinking was curtilage. But the third wrote that Cox violated the Robinsons' Fourth Amendment rights. "We are pleased we had such a well-reasoned opinion by the dissenting judge," says Lawrence.

He doesn't expect to go before the full court until the fall. And both attorneys think that even if they prevail, the Commonwealth likely will appeal the case to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

The Bleak House Road house burned nearly to the ground last October 18, forcing Lisa Robinson and her son to flee from the fast-moving morning blaze. The house had been listed for sale for $510,000 at the time of the fire. Neighbors report the burned ruins remain unchanged at the property since.

Sally Howe lives next door and was a character witness for Lisa Robinson, who last year changed her name to Elisa Christian Kelly.

"I don't think they should have gotten any time," Howe says. "They made a mistake, but I would have thought that would have been resolved long ago."

Attorney Wren wonders whether there would have been a different scenario had Judge Peatross followed the commonwealth attorney's recommendation of 90 days in jail instead of imposing a 27-month sentence.

"It's quite possible we wouldn't be here," he says.

Busted and burned: the party house hasn't changed since an October 2004 fire.