Here is the part of an 4-1 majority opinion by a New York State appellate court that describes the offense committed in the case that was brought before them.
Defendant, a homeless 53 year-old, entered a pharmacy and attempted to pay for a tube of toothpaste using a counterfeit $20 bill. The bill was rejected by the cashier, and defendant left the store without completing the transaction. Shortly thereafter, defendant was observed by the police, where he was attempting to purchase food with a counterfeit $20 bill. The restaurant cashier refused to accept the bill. Defendant was stopped by the police in front of yet another fast-food restaurant. Five counterfeit $20 bills were recovered from him upon arrest.
So here’s a question. What would have been a reasonable punishment in this case?
Here again from the ruling is the section that describes the verdict arrived at by the lower court.
Despite being charged with five counts of possession of a forged instrument, the jury only convicted him of a single count and acquitted him of the remaining charges. Defendant was sentenced to an indeterminate period of incarceration of 4 to 8 years. We reduce this sentence, in the interest of justice, to an indeterminate period of incarceration of 3 to 6 years.
The appeals court explained why it reduced the sentence.
The immediate object of defendant’s crime was to purchase basic human necessities, including food and toothpaste. In consideration of the fact that he was a 53 year-old, unemployed homeless man, with longstanding medical and substance abuse issues, a reduction of his sentence to 3 to 6 years is appropriate.
It is absolutely insane, but unfortunately common in the US for poor people to receive horrendous sentences for committing minor crimes. So why was the initial sentence so harsh and why did the appellate court not reduce it more drastically? The court explained its reasonin
Defendant’s most recent felony, forming the basis for his predicate felony adjudication, occurred 9 years prior to the instant offense, and was nonviolent. His most recent violent felony convictions occurred in 1991 and 1995, 20 and 24 years, respectively before the instant offense. The reduced sentence, which is the minimum permissible legal sentence, reflects an enhancement for the predicate nonviolent felony. His more recent convictions have all been nonviolent misdemeanors, and they are mostly related to his longtime drug addiction. Notwithstanding the People’s contention that defendant’s sentence is justified, in part, because he was involved in a scheme to launder money, there was no evidence presented at trial to that effect. In fact, the jury acquitted the defendant of the majority of counts regarding forged instruments, and defendant’s sentence should not in any way be based on crimes for which he was acquitted.
In other words, the appellate judges’ ability to lower the sentence was limited by the mandatory minimum sentencing laws. This is the system in the US where you can get slapped with massive sentences for repeat offenses even if the latest offense itself is slight and the prior ones took place a long time ago, and where the presiding judges are limited in their discretion. This is not to say that the defendant in this case is a good person, as the dissenting judge pointed out. Going way back, the defendant had committed serious crimes, including attempted rape. The question is whether those crimes should always be held against him even if he had paid the penalty for them. In other words, is he actually being punished again for past crimes instead of the current one?
But why would the prosecutors even contest the appeal to have the sentence reduced? It seems that the prosecutor’s office wanted a harsher sentence because they claimed he was part of a money-laundering scheme. But the judges’ rejected that.
Notwithstanding the People’s contention that defendant’s sentence is justified, in part, because he was involved in a scheme to launder money, there was no evidence presented at trial to that effect. In fact, the jury acquitted the defendant of the majority of counts regarding forged instruments, and defendant’s sentence should not in any way be based on crimes for which he was acquitted.
If you are mystified as I was by why the prosecutor’s office acted so harshly, I can explain because I saw that the prosecutor in this case who brought the original case and pushed to retain the harsher sentence is Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. This is an utterly odious man who has built his career by sucking up to rich and influential people who contribute to his campaigns while burnishing his tough-on-crime credentials by hammering poor people. (See here for my past posts describing Vance’s actions.)
The idea that a homeless man is part of some money laundering scheme, even if true, is hardly likely to bring down the economy because the amount of money he could launder is pitifully small. On the other hand, the big banks who almost wrecked the economy are in Vance’s jurisdiction but he largely ignored their crimes.