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Rice, Allen Cases Show Danger of Unchecked Prosecutorial Discretion

Friday, September 12, 2014

The year 2014 has gone from bad to worse for Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. In February, he was involved in an ugly confrontation with his then-fiancée (and now wife) Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City hotel casino.  A security camera captured the incident, which ended with Rice hauling the unconscious Palmer out of the elevator.

At first, handling of the event seemed to be favoring Rice. The Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, for its part, was willing to give Rice a break.  In May, Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain agreed to allow Rice to enter a pretrial intervention program for first offenders, even though Rice was indicted for felony aggravated assault.  The program allows Rice not just the opportunity to avoid prison time but, upon successful completion of the program’s requirements, any conviction whatsoever.

Initially, and perhaps based in part on the leniency shown in the criminal case, the NFL was also notably forgiving. After meeting with Rice and his representatives in June, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on July 24 handed Rice a two-game suspension for violation of the league’s personal conduct policy.

As for Ms. Palmer herself, she was also willing to put the incident behind her.  In March, she and Rice were married.

The picture changed radically for Rice this week, however, after additional video footage of the incident became public (readers should be cautioned of the graphic nature of the footage). In the video, the 27-year-old professional football player is seen knocking Palmer out with a brutal punch to her face.  Faced with intense public outrage (during which even the President of the United States voiced his condemnation of domestic abusers), the Ravens released Rice, and the NFL reversed its earlier decision and suspended him from the league indefinitely.

You now have to look pretty hard to find anyone willing to defend Rice or suggest that leniency in his case is appropriate.  At least one person, however, believed his prosecution was handled appropriately. That would be Atlantic City Prosecutor Jim McClain. Speaking to the media, McClain insisted that Rice would not have gone to prison even upon conviction.  “Even if they disagree with why I did what I did, I just want people to know the decision was made after careful consideration of the law, careful consideration of the facts, hearing the voice of the victim and considering all the parameters," he said.  With evident futility, McClain added, “I want people to have confidence in this agency, even if they don’t agree with everything we do.”

Based on a number of scathing editorials, Mr. McClain may find that wish unfulfilled.  As we recently reported, McClain’s office took a very different posture in a case involving Shaneen Allen, a single mother from Philadelphia who was arrested last October after a traffic stop, allegedly for weaving within the lane of travel.  By all accounts, the worst that could be said of Ms. Allen is that she failed to understand her Pennsylvania concealed carry permit was not recognized under New Jersey law, meaning that when she informed police of the handgun in her purse, they had all the evidence they needed for a felony arrest.  Like Rice, Ms. Allen had no criminal history.  Like Rice, she was gainfully employed.  Like Rice, she was accepted into Atlantic County’s Pretrial Intervention Program (PTI) by its director.  Like Rice, Ms. Allen is finding her year getting far worse as it progresses.

Unlike Rice, however, the offense for which she was accused involved no violence, aggression, or harm to another person.  Yet McClain’s office nevertheless refused to dispose of the case through PTI, leading the same judge who handled Rice’s case to rule that he would defer to the prosecutor’s discretion.  According to the assistant prosecutor who appeared at the hearing, Allen’s prosecution could serve as a “deterrent,” and the alleged offense was “too serious to warrant divergence” into PTI.  If convicted, Ms. Allen faces a mandatory minimum of three years in prison, with a possible sentence of up to 10 years.

Numerous commentators (including here, here, and here) have already mentioned the gross disparity in how the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office and the New Jersey criminal “justice” system have treated the two cases.  McClain’s office has refused to address the issue with the media, saying they won’t comment on a pending prosecution.

Ms. Allen’s fate is scheduled to be decided in October by a New Jersey jury.  However, as this article is going to press, we can report that McClain’s office has requested her upcoming trial be delayed while he reviews the appropriate resolution of her case, and that a judge has granted McClain's request. 

Whatever the outcome, Congress should act.  If states like New Jersey refuse to recognize the Second Amendment, the federal government has a duty to ensure the rights of the American people by passing federal legislation like the pending Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2013.

Rest assured, we'll keep readers apprised of any new developments.

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