‘I am presently in the process of reviewing our office’s position on the appropriate resolution of this matter.” With these insipid and officious 18 words did Shaneen Allen’s prospects improve for the first time since October of 2013.
A quick recap: Last year, a single mother of two named Shaneen Allen drove from her home state of Pennsylvania into neighboring New Jersey with a concealed handgun in her purse. Unaware that her carry-permit was not automatically accepted in all 50 states, Allen made the mistake of informing a cop who had pulled her over for a minor driving infraction that she had a gun in the back seat, and, having so confessed, she was arrested. Before long, she had been charged with both illegal possession of a firearm and possession of hollow-point ammunition — crimes that, taken together, carry a mandatory minimum sentence of three years in jail, and a legal maximum of eleven. Overnight, Allen’s world collapsed.
Bizarrely, officials in Atlantic County elected to throw the book at her, lead prosecutor James McClain not only declining to downgrade or drop the charges entirely, but also denying Allen entry into a “pre-trial intervention” program that would have kept her out of prison. As New Jersey’s website confirms, PTI was instituted to accord “defendants, generally first-time offenders, with opportunities for alternatives to the traditional criminal justice process of ordinary prosecution.” In other words, it was established precisely for the likes of non-violent, first-time offenders such as Shaneen Allen. This being so, the PTI board quickly accepted Allen’s application. McClain, however, refused to sign off.
McClain’s obstinacy was rendered all the more perplexing given that, a few months earlier, he had happily approved pretrial intervention for one Ray Rice, a star of the National Football League who had been caught on camera knocking his then-girlfriend unconscious and dragging her out of an elevator by her feet. Why, observers reasonably wondered, would a prosecutor cut a violent criminal such considerable slack but attempt to crucify a law-abiding mother who made an innocent mistake? Certainly the answer cannot have been “tradition,” for Rice is by no means a typical candidate for PTI. “I can’t say I’ve ever had a violent crime of [Rice’s kind] accepted,” local lawyer Richard Sparaco told NBC Sports last week. “With this type of domestic violence and the video that we’ve all seen now,” he continued, “you’d have to say if a prosecutor sees that video, it would be quite surprising to us defense attorneys to see acceptance into the PTI program.” Overall, only 1 percent of domestic-violence cases are deemed eligible. McClain, NBC’s Michael David Smith indicated, was complicit in nothing less than “a sweetheart deal that is almost unheard of for violent crimes like Rice’s.”
Among those who were flummoxed by the state’s thinking was Allen’s lawyer, Evan F. Nappen. “Whatever Ray Rice’s lawyer can get him, good for him,” Nappen tells me. “But PTI is glaringly appropriate in Allen’s case.” PTI, he explains, “is not simply a dismissal — it’s far from that. She’ll still have to do a period of probation, some community service, and to abide by a mandate not to get in any further trouble. She still has to go through a criminal sanction but, upon successful completion of the course, the charges are dismissed and she won’t have a felony conviction.” Besides, Nappen notes sardonically, it’s not as if Allen is likely to “offend again,” nor as if she represents a danger to public safety. “Come on!” he exclaims. “Do we want to waste prison resources? Do we want to pay for Shaneen Allen to be locked up for years? Taking her away from her family and ruining her career? It’s insanity really.”
It is indeed, and it has been broadly noticed. Nappen, he tells me, “cannot remember a case like this, where you have everyone — Anderson Cooper, National Review, everyone — on the same side.” Sympathy for Allen, he argues, “cuts across the political spectrum and beyond guns. This story has now created many waves. I would find it hard to believe that the prosecutor could just ignore all of the media and all of the legislators.” Perhaps, Nappen wonders aloud, the scale of the outrage has served as a lesson for McClain? “Maybe he started out benevolent and just wanting to be tough on guns,” he suggests. “His website is all about guns. But when it extends to the Shaneen Allens of the world . . . to law-abiding citizens making an honest mistake — you want to destroy them over that?”
At one time, the answer to this question appeared to be a resounding and frustrating “yes.” Friday’s announcement, however, represents a sliver of hope that common sense will prevail and Atlantic County’s dogmatic prosecutors will soften. McClain is, naturally, under no obligation to reconsider in Allen’s favor. But, with so many critical eyes watching, it would be somewhat peculiar if he were to call such a dramatic break purely to redouble his efforts on the other side.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.