Character now a question for Sutherland

The 49ers pride themselves on having a roster full of "character" guys. And that means Vinny Sutherland's hopes of retaining his spot on that roster in 2002 just took a turn for the worse.

Everybody makes mistakes. But Sutherland's involvement in a weekend automobile accident raises some serious questions about his character, particularly since it brought to light some previous incidents involving Sutherland's drinking and driving.

It was bad enough that, according to published reports, Sutherland allegedly crashed a Toyota sports-utility vehicle into a lamppost and trees early Saturday morning in Saratoga, then fled the scene of the accident.

It was bad enough two impressionable 49ers rookies - fourth-round draft pick Kevin Curtis and fifth-rounder Josh Shaw - were passengers in the vehicle, and Shaw required medical attention for an arm laceration.

What's really bad is, according to Santa Clara Sheriff's Department, Sutherland later was found hiding in bushes near the proximity of the accident and later failed a field sobriety test.

And what's even worse is Sutherland already was wanted for violating probation in San Mateo County because he failed to sign up for an alcohol-rehabilitation program after police cited him on suspicion of driving under the influence and reckless driving last September, shortly after he was signed by the 49ers. According to Department of Motor Vehicle records, Sutherland's driver's license had been suspended since October.

According to published reports, prosecutors dropped the DUI charge in December when Sutherland pleaded guilty to reckless driving and he was sentenced to two years probation. A judge ordered him to sign up for a "first-offender" alcohol rehabilitation program by March 13. But Sutherland did not sign up, according to court records, which violated his probation, and he now faces a $7,500 bench warrant for his arrest.

It remains unclear if Sutherland informed the 49ers or the NFL of his first arrest. If he's convicted of the latest charge, Sutherland could be subject to a fine, a suspension or both under the league's substance-abuse policy.

Sutherland also was arrested on suspicion of public intoxication and disorderly conduct at a bar near Purdue University during his junior season at the college.

Sutherland, obviously, must now face his problems after the latest incident brings his previous misconduct into public viewing. He recently signed a one-year, $300,000 deal as an exclusive rights free agent and had a good chance to make the team's final roster in September, although he definitely would have to battle to keep his job as the Niners' kick returner and reserve receiver.

Now, other issues likely will be involved in that decision. Sutherland no doubt will learn from this latest incident, but don't think for a moment that the Niners will forget it when it comes time for them to decide which players they want to take with them into the 2002 season.

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