Four of five Columbia University students arrested in what authorities described as a major crackdown on drug dealing on the Ivy League campus rejected no-jail plea deals Tuesday in hopes of wiping the legal slate clean by getting drug treatment instead.
Noting the students' previously clean records, the city Special Narcotics Prosecutor's office said it would agree to probation if Christopher Coles, Adam Klein, Jose Stephan Perez and Michael Wymbs pleaded guilty to felony charges.
But defense lawyers said their clients were drug users and would be better rehabilitated through a treatment program.
State Supreme Court Justice Michael R. Sonberg didn't decide on the students' request, which will hinge on whether they represent what state lawmakers had in mind when they agreed in 2009 to let some nonviolent drug offenders go to treatment instead of prison. Prosecutors oppose the students' request. The students are free on bail and due back in court July 19.
The fifth student, Harrison David, faces more serious charges related to selling cocaine. He was offered a plea deal that would get him a year in prison. The engineering major, 20, would face at least three years if convicted.
David's lawyer, Matthew Myers, said Tuesday that the undercover officer had urged David to sell cocaine. Myers said to single his client out for more serious charges "is really an unfair separation." David also rejected the plea deal.
Arrested in December, the students allegedly formed a ring that peddled a cornucopia of drugs — from marijuana to prescription pills to LSD-spiked candy — from dorms and fraternity houses. An undercover officer bought a total of about $11,000 worth of various drugs from the students over five months in one of the biggest drug takedowns at a New York City college in recent memory, authorities said.
All but David are seeking what's known as "diversion" to drug-abuse treatment. Under that approach, they could get the charges dismissed or lowered to misdemeanors if they succeed in treatment.
While diversion options have existed in some New York courts for years, a 2009 overhaul of the state's once notoriously stringent drug laws gave judges more leeway to send nonviolent offenders to treatment or other alternatives to prison. The idea is that some people's crimes are offshoots of their drug use and treatment would do more than incarceration to keep them from reoffending.
If Coles, Klein, Perez and Wymbs were selling drugs, it was because they used them, their lawyers say. But prosecutors say the students were drug dealers who were in it for the money, not addicts who should be afforded help.
Wymbs, 22, an applied mathematics major charged with selling LSD and Ecstasy, has "multiple addictions," lawyer Scott J. Spittberger told the court Tuesday. Perez, a published poet known as Stephan Vincenzo, also is a substance abuser, said his lawyer, Peter M. Frankel. Perez, 20, is accused of selling Adderall, a stimulant for which he had a prescription and other students sought as a study aid, Frankel said.
"Does that justify him selling it? Of course not. But is there some mitigation in that? I would think so," Frankel said after court.
Klein, a 21-year-old charged with selling LSD, is addicted to marijuana and "several other drugs" that took a severe toll on his academic performance, said his lawyer, Alan Abramson. Coles, primarily charged with selling marijuana, developed a $70-to-$100-a-day marijuana-smoking habit in college that prompted him to seek counseling even before his arrest, said his lawyer, Marc Agnifilo.
Like David, Coles, 21, told police he sold drugs to pay tuition, prosecutors say. Agnifilo said Coles' family had cut him off financially because of his marijuana habit.
"He had to try and make that money, and that's how this whole nightmare started," Agnifilo said after court.
But prosecutors say the students' dealing was businesslike and, in some cases, extensive.
Coles at one point sold a pound of marijuana, and Klein had $4,325 in cash and 300 doses' worth of LSD in vials in his room, assistant special narcotics prosecutor William Novak told the court. Wymbs sent text messages discussing the quality of his product and advising customers about what combination of drugs to take, and Perez exchanged text messages about drug sales with some 90 people and did some of his deals in the campus library, Novak said.
"Diversion was not designed to allow every drug- or alcohol-abusing defendant to escape the consequences," he said.