Did Meredith Graves get a “good deal” from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. after she accepted his misdemeanor non-jail plea bargain? Did DA Vance do the “right thing” in offering a non-felony plea? Certainly, the technical answer to both of these questions is an unequivocal “yes.” After all, it is not as if Graves, a registered nurse and fourth year medical student, had a legal defense. She could not argue the police lacked probable cause to arrest her or that the firearm in her possession was recovered as a product of an illegal search. Further, as we all know, ignorance of the law is no defense. The practical reality was that other than mitigation, no other true defense existed. In a case such as this, getting prosecutors to deviate down from a mandatory three and one half year sentence on a felony to no incarceration on a misdemeanor is significant.
Despite the fact that the offer is a heck of a lot better than the mandatory prison Graves would have faced if convicted of Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Second Degree (New York Penal Law 265.03), there is a real issue that I believe prosecutors ignored in resolving this case. Yes, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office recognized that the firearm in Graves’ possession was illegally possessed in New York, but it was not an “illegal gun.” Graves had a licensed firearm with the proper permits from her home state (whatever they may be). If evidence established that the weapon was purchased illegally, defaced, used in a crime or was involved in weapon trafficking, DA Vance rightfully would have taken a less forgiving approach. Further, unlike an arrest where a firearm is recovered as a result of some other infraction or crime, Graves had attempted to turn in the firearm and check the weapon at Ground Zero when she learned she was unable to possess it there. It does not take a criminal lawyer to recognize that DA Vance took all of this into consideration when ultimately determining what he believed to be the best resolution to this case and deviating from a normal offer or deal.
Unfortunately, however, as good as an offer DA Vance made, his decision to still require a plea to a misdemeanor may have long term ramifications not only to Ms. Grave’s, but to how people will react when they come to New York and later learn of the penalty associated with their possession of an otherwise legally purchased, registered or permitted firearm. Thinking “outside the box,” would prosecutors and the police rather a school teacher, doctor, attorney or any hardworking and honest man or woman potentially lose their ability to work in their profession or provide for their family where no malicious, criminal or “evil” intent existed? Clearly, cases such as these are different that those involving narcotics, robbery, trafficking or other contraband activities. Further, if these men and women realize after they arrive in New York City that their previously legal possession is now illegal, do prosecutors want them to turn that firearm over to the police or hide away the gun due to the risk of a life long misdemeanor criminal record (at best)? If there is no amnesty and a person can potentially “get away” with the felony by hiding the gun as opposed to forcing themselves into Graves’ legal predicament (not to mention the financial burden of paying bail and hiring a New York criminal lawyer), do prosecutors truly believe people will just admit to their indiscretions and turn the weapons into law enforcement? Without any amnesty in these unique situations, what are the risks to the life of police officers and others? We can agree to disagree, but it is certainly conceivable that an otherwise law abiding person with an out of state firearm permit will not fall on the sword and take a misdemeanor plea. This endangers everyone.
In lieu of demanding a misdemeanor conviction, could prosecutors have worked out a different deal that would have held Graves and hold similarly situated people accountable? Could a resolution have been reached that sent a message to those who learn of New York’s gun laws after arriving here? The answer to both of these questions is a resounding “yes.” I do not know what was discussed between Graves’ attorney and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, but instead of a potentially crippling criminal record, prosecutors could have offered an “alternate plea,” for example. In such a circumstance, Graves, or a similarly situated defendant, could plead to a misdemeanor or even a felony. Assuming certain demands were met – community service, for example – and the accused did not get rearrested, prosecutors could then allow that person to withdraw the plea and receive a non-criminal disposition such as a Disorderly Conduct. If the accused ultimately failed to comply with the community service or was rearrested, a jail alternative would be available at sentencing and the accused would not be able to withdraw the plea. Arguably, this level of accountability and monitoring is much greater than a straight misdemeanor plea while also giving the accused the ability to not have a forever tarnished life. If prosecutors wanted to ensure the records were available should some other crime be perpetrated, they could have even required that sealing be waived upon the completion of the instituted requirements. In such a circumstance, prosecutors could look “tough on crime” by getting a plea, force accountability if the accused failed to uphold the agreement and also show greater compassion.
All prosecutors want to be tough on crime. All prosecutors want to be just and fair. While the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office gets a conviction, albeit a misdemeanor, the result is that a trained medical professional will have to forever answer to a criminal record where she never exhibited malice or criminal intent. Graves’ ability to work in New York, assuming she would want to return here, may be compromised even though she tried to do the “right thing” upon learning she could not possess the weapon she otherwise legally owned. For the safety and security of all denizens of New York City, I hope that other men and women follow Graves’ path if they make this same mistake. Unfortunately, however, a reasonable person could certainly understand why, as a result of this plea deal, they would not.
To learn about New York’s weapon and gun crimes, the following link to the Criminal Possession of a Weapon information page has significant materials on the crimes and legal decisions impacting the law.
Saland Law PC is a New York criminal defense firm founded by two former Manhattan prosecutors. The New York criminal lawyers at Saland Law PC represent those accused of all crimes, including Criminal Possession of a Weapon, throughout the New York City area.