Monday, December 8, 2008

Unnecessary Roughness in Bloomberg Vs. Plaxico in Manhattan

We need to end the mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent, first-time offenders in New York State, and Mayor Bloomberg owes an apology to all of us and to Plaxico Burress for his most recent comments about Burress' shooting incident in Manhattan on November 29, 2008.

Here at Manhattan Viewpoint, we are disappointed that the Mayor hasn't recognized the lack of balance in his comments and the inappropriate tone he has struck.

Mandatory Minimum Sentence

Plaxico Burress is charged with illegal possession of a loaded weapon. He shot himself in the leg on November 29, 2008 at a club in Manhattan. While nothing can excuse his lack of judgment, possession of a loaded weapon is clearly a non-violent offense. State law requires that anyone convicted of this crime serve a minimum of 3 and 1/2 years in New York State prison. The maximum sentence is 15 years.

The judge in the Plaxico Burress case will not be able to weigh any of the mitigating factors or assess how much damage Plaxico has done to the people in our community. The judge may ultimately feel that 3 and 1/2 years is not punishment enough. But if the judge decides that no one was harmed other than Burress himself and that Burress, while demonstrating horribly poor judgment and immaturity, has not demonstrated a tendency toward criminality, the sentence must be at least 3 and 1/2 years nonetheless. A judge might look at the killing of Sean Taylor and the gun-point attacks on other athletes and decide that Plaxico's desire to protect himself almost makes sense but that he needs to learn to protect himself by avoiding clubs where he feels he needs a gun to feel safe. The judge might even look at Sean Taylor's killing in his own home and be open to how Burress might not feel safe at home or at a night club. None of these thoughts would excuse the illegal weapons possession that Burress must address, but each of these thoughts would make one wonder whether 3 and 1/2 years in prison is the best way for Plaxico Burress to serve our community. What will 3 and 1/2 years in prison do to improve lives in New York City? How will that improve the economy, help us repair our educational system, make college affordable, or make our streets safer? I need to repeat that. How will placing Plaxico Burress in prison for 3 and 1/2 years make our streets safer?

Mandatory minimum sentences disable our judicial system and mandate dysfunction. They reduce the value of judges and ensure errors in sentencing. Perhaps this incident will help New Yorkers see the lack of common sense reflected by mandatory minimum sentences, particularly when the minimum sentences are more severe than the punishments some criminals receive for violent crimes.

Penalty Flag on Mayor Bloomberg

Our Mayor chose to speak out about the shooting incident and stated that "It would be an outrage if we don't prosecute to the fullest extent of the law."

He took this strident position with regard to a non-violent crime despite the fact that such a prosecutorial approach will not create jobs, will not improve consumer confidence, and will not make our streets safer.

The Mayor should not engage in this sort of rhetoric for three reasons.

1) There is a potential taint for the jury pool. We are all innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Plaxico Burress will have a defense strategy, and the Mayor shouldn't pre-judge the outcome of the jury's assessment of the defense case.

2) Hypocrisy. When the police shoot unarmed New Yorkers with 50 bullets and kill one of our fellow residents, the mayor expresses concern but encourages us to withhold judgment until all the facts are available. Yet, when he sees a non-violent criminal charge against a private citizen, he demands the most aggressive possible prosecution. He doesn't mention patience or withholding judgment until all of the facts are in. He is on the attack. The Police work for him, we can excuse him for being outraged and impatient for the judicial process when people who work for him kill his innocent fellow citizens. Ironically, he has the patience to let the judicial system work when those who report to him have taken innocent life, and he has no patience when a private citizen is charged with a non-violent offense.

3) Criminal law shouldn't be politicized or demagogued. We must remember that the officers who killed Sean Bell were found not guilty by the judge in their case. They didn't get lenient sentences because of mitigating circumstances. They didn't plead to a lesser crime to avoid a mandatory minimum. They didn't "get off on a technicality." The judge in their case determined that though they had shot into a car of unarmed men 50 times and killed one of the men, they had committed no crime whatsoever. One can imagine that a jury might find that Plaxico Burress committed no crime either. After all, he apparently fired only one shot and he is not alleged to have been trying to injure anyone. Of course, no one was injured other than Plaxico Burress himself. I'd much rather have private New Yorkers shoot themselves accidentally once in a while than have the city government send four guys to shoot me 50 times (or 41 times) and kill me every once in a while.

Perhaps the Mayor will retract his statements and look at the facts. If he did so, he would see that Plaxico Burress' shooting of himself is not an opportunity to attack Plaxico Burress but an opportunity to expose the outrage of mandatory minimums. As we have discussed previously here at Manhattan Viewpoint, the elimination of mandatory minimums would improve the economy in Manhattan and in all of NYC. Such an elimination would enhance the voting power of city residents and increase the state and federal funding received by New York City.

We welcome the Mayor to join us on the side of this fight that helps improve the lives of New Yorkers.

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