Cliff Harris, the former Edison High and Oregon Ducks football star who lost his shot at playing in the National Football League after being arrested in 2013 on drug charges, pleaded no contest Monday in Fresno County Superior Court to a felony charge of arson for setting a grassy street median on fire in April.
Harris, wearing shackles and a red jail jumpsuit, said nothing after signing a plea agreement that guarantees no time in prison, but up to a year in jail.
Judge Don Penner will sentence the 24-year-old Harris on Dec. 14.
Since his graduation from Edison High in 2009, Harris has been in trouble with the law.
Court records say Harris has a half-dozen traffic tickets for offenses such as speeding, running a stop sign, driving without a license, lane straddling, and driving at night without lights. His criminal record includes three misdemeanor cases and the felony arson case. The court record indicates that he has failed to appear in court several times.
He also has spent time in a state hospital this year after Penner declared him incompetent to assist in his defense to the arson charge.
In July 2009, Harris pleaded no contest to obstructing a police officer in the line of duty in connection with an on-campus scuffle at Edison High in April of that year. Police said an officer had to pepper spray Harris, who had already signed to play at Oregon, and his brother.
“I want to play ball,” Harris said, explaining why he decided to plead no contest instead of fighting the charges.
Cliff Harris was an All-American cornerback in 2010 before being kicked off the Oregon Ducks in December 2011 for violating team rules. He went undrafted in 2012. He was signed, then cut, by the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Jets.
Harris, who spent three days in jail after his arrest, was sentenced to a year of probation. His younger brother, also an Edison student, was taken to Juvenile Hall. (Because the younger brother was a minor at the time, his name and the legal proceedings were kept confidential.)
Harris was an All-American cornerback in 2010 before being kicked off the Ducks in December 2011 for violating team rules. That move, by then-coach Chip Kelly, came after Harris was stopped in June 2011 for speeding at 118 mph by an Oregon state trooper, who said he smelled marijuana in the car. Harris’ reply: “We smoked it all.”
Harris went undrafted in 2012 then signed as a free agent with the Eagles, who cut him after the season.
In May 2013, Harris was arrested after witnesses reported him fighting with his girlfriend outside a restaurant in Oregon.
Responding to a report of a disturbance at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Hillsboro, police arrested Harris on suspicion of domestic harassment. The woman did not want press charges, according to The Oregonian.
That arrest came less than a week after Harris was cut by the New York Jets following his arrest for marijuana possession in New Jersey. He had signed a reserve-future contract with the NFL team in January of that year.
Monday, Harris’ relatives, who attended his court hearing, declined to comment, saying only Harris could explain his actions.
His current legal problems stem from his arrest on April 4 this year. Police cited Harris shortly before 3 p.m. after officers found him in possession of a marijuana and a smoking device on Gettysburg Avenue near West Avenue in northwest Fresno. About an hour later, police arrested Harris after a bystander saw him setting a patch of grass on a street median on fire near Emerson and Bengston avenues.
The bystander put out the fire. Harris never explained to police why he did it, Sgt. Jaime Rios said Monday.
After being tossed into jail on the arson charge, criminal proceedings were suspended on April 20 after his lawyer called into question his competency to assist in his defense.
In May, Penner declared Harris legally incompetent after a court-appointed psychiatrist examined Harris. Harris was then sent to Atascadero State Hospital for treatment of an undisclosed medical condition. He returned to Fresno County Jail in September after his competency was restored, court records say.