American law enforcement isn’t perfect, but it does a pretty good job of delivering justice while promoting social stability, and district attorneys are elected to make the system work. But Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s upside-down priorities serve neither purpose—indeed, they foment chaos and undermine public confidence in equity under law.
Vance’s well-publicized refusal to prosecute transit fare-beating, for example, predictably touched off a turnstile-jumping epidemic that the cash-strapped MTA claims has cost it some $215 million so far this fiscal year—almost a quarter of a projected $1 billion current-year budget deficit. Then, last weekend, five vagrants in a Chinatown subway station were caught on camera attacking and fighting a cop. They were arrested, but released after the D.A.’s office initially declined to press charges; the case remains unresolved.
Last week’s reports of a damning 2013 email exchange between Mayor Bill de Blasio and a man now on trial on federal corruption charges recalled Vance’s stated reason for closing a protracted campaign-finance-violation probe: de Blasio’s conduct was “contrary to the intent and spirit of the laws that impose candidate contribution limits,” the district attorney announced, but because the mayor’s lawyers had said that it was okay, well, then, it was okay. Case closed.
The mayor’s free pass wasn’t the only one Vance tried to stamp. He seemingly had to be embarrassed into proceeding against former Hollywood honcho—and now-accused sexual abuser—Harvey Weinstein. Vance blinked at least once in the face of abuse allegations against the moviemaker, before finally bringing charges after the New York Times and The New Yorker presented compelling evidence of misconduct. During that controversy it emerged that Vance routinely took campaign contributions from lawyers and law firms with cases before his office, a practice he subsequently ended.
Another well-connected criminal, billionaire Jeffery Epstein, convicted in Florida of soliciting sex from underaged girls, was forced to register as a sex offender in Manhattan, where he maintains a residence. The judge in the case was shocked, though, when Vance’s office asked the court to assign Epstein the lowest, least-restrictive offender designation, contrary to all guidelines. Fortunately, the judge bucked the request.
All of this severely undercuts public confidence in the rule of law and feeds the wholly understandable cynicism that most followers of New York politics have developed over decades. (Why, for instance, is former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver not yet in prison, six months after receiving a seven-year sentence following his second multi-count conviction on corruption charges, first brought in 2015?)
But Vance’s most fraught offense against public order has been his arrogation of the legislative function—his view that some crimes are either beneath his attention or shouldn’t even be on the books in the first place. The state legislature seems to be on the verge of formally decriminalizing the recreational use of marijuana, but the net effect of new laws will be scant: Vance quit prosecuting public pot possession last summer. “The needless criminalization of pot smoking frustrates [our] core mission, so we are removing ourselves from the equation,” he announced.
As with fare-beating, that’s not properly his decision to make; it’s Albany’s. Yet he’s not alone: District Attorney Eric Gonzalez is considering dismissing thousands of old marijuana convictions. And potential candidates for next year’s Queens D.A. race are already preparing to run what one might call nullification campaigns. Vance is leading the way in a new movement of prosecutors who seem to be saying that if they don’t approve of a statute, they won’t enforce it.
They claim that they’re doing Lady Justice’s work, especially where race intersects with marijuana enforcement. In Vance’s words, his policy is meant to combat “the intolerable racial disparities that underlie” prosecution. Yet there’s not much evidence that this contention is true, beyond the fact that, proportionately, more blacks and Hispanics get arrested for public pot use and fare-beating than whites. This is “disparate impact” brought to its absurd conclusion. Justice in Western culture is supposed to be determined one individual case at a time, not defined by group membership. That ideal has not always been met, of course, but that’s no reason for ditching it.
Prosecutorial nullification, for whatever reason—whether driven by ideology or campaign contributions from lawyers—is a dangerous business. Cy Vance already has done enough damage to his own reputation, to say nothing of the harm he’s doing to the public interest.
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