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Ivy League Students Reject Plea Bargain in Drug Case

By Dirk Hanson 06/23/11

Never plead guilty to a felony: It doesn’t look good on your resume.

Bad for the CV.
Photo via blackpoliticalbuzz

All five Columbia University students charged last December with drug trafficking on campus have turned down deals that would have kept four of them out of prison, and would have spared the fifth student the possibility of a 10-year jail sentence. The reason? No, it’s not because they are innocent of all charges. It’s because of what a felony plea could do to their future job prospects. “These are kids of great intelligence who have otherwise exceedingly bright futures as professionals,” a defense attorney told the New York Times.

Undercover agents bought $11,000 worth of drugs at three different fraternities from these high-IQ students with bright futures, including “cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, and LSD-laced Altoids mints and Sweetarts candy,” said prosecutors. Attorney for the government’s main target, Harrison David, said their client was pressured to “bump up” to cocaine from marijuana sales. David rejected a year in prison because it would have required a guilty plea to the criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree, to wit, a felony. Instead, he faces 10 to 25.

“A misdemeanor plea is pretty livable,” said an attorney for one of the men. “You can be a lawyer, a doctor. A felony is a whole different ballgame.” The attorney for defendant Jose Perez said: “He’s got a scholarship at risk here. He’s got his future at Columbia. As a convicted felon, it’s going to be difficult to get into a different school as well. A felony conviction stays on your record for the rest of your life.”

The judge has so for denied requests for diversion into drug court or treatment, arguing that the drug sales were all about money, not addiction. But it didn’t help the prosecution’s case when one of the undercover officers was busted last month on federal gambling charges. Any way we look at it, this high-stakes court gamble just points out the ongoing gaming of the drug laws, their arbitrary application in the courts, and the way addiction becomes a bargaining chip in the negotiations—all of which helps fuel the widespread notion that justice is neither swift nor certain when it comes to drug cases.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]

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