A group of Columbia University students accused of selling drugs on the Ivy League school’s New York campus rejected plea deals offered by prosecutors at a court hearing in state Supreme Court.
Harrison David, 20, of Wrentham, Massachusetts, today rejected an offer to plead guilty to criminal sale of a controlled substance, in exchange for one year in prison and two years’ probation. David faces as long as 10 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charge, said his attorney, Matthew Myers.
Myers said that his client is being singled out by prosecutors for a more severe penalty and that probation is a more appropriate sentence. The only reason David sold cocaine was at the urging of undercover officers who suggested he “bump up” his marijuana sales, Myers said.
“None of this started as a cocaine operation,” Myers told reporters after today’s court appearance. “It’s highly unfair that he’s separated.”
The other four students -- Christopher Coles, 21, of Philadelphia; Adam Klein, 21, of Closter, New Jersey; Jose Stephan Perez, 20, of Atlanta; and Michael Wymbs, 22, of New York -- refused deals to plead guilty to drug-related charges that would have earned them each five years’ probation.
Prosecutor William Novak rejected requests by their defense attorneys to divert their cases to state drug-treatment courts, saying the sales were motivated by profit, not addiction. Coles’s attorney, Marc Agnifilo, said his client was addicted to marijuana, smoked five times a day and just left a treatment program in Washington.
A guilty plea on a misdemeanor charge would allow Coles to pursue numerous career paths, while a felony conviction would hamper his plans, Agnifilo told reporters after today’s hearing.
“A misdemeanor plea is pretty livable,” Agnifilo said. “You can be a lawyer, a doctor. A felony is a whole different ballgame.”
The five students and three other people were indicted in December following a five-month investigation named “Operation Ivy League.” The students were arrested in March after raids on fraternity houses and residences on the school’s Manhattan campus.
Prosecutors said undercover officers spent $11,000 buying drugs including cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy and LSD-laced Altoids mints and Sweetarts candy, with most of the sales taking place in common areas and bedrooms of three fraternities.
Alleged suppliers Miron Sarzynski, 24, and his girlfriend, Megan Asper, 22, were arrested in October in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan. Another alleged cocaine supplier, Roberto Lagares, 31, was arrested in December in Brooklyn. None of them attended Columbia.
Sarzynski pleaded guilty to second-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance and first-degree attempted kidnapping and was sentenced to six years in prison. Asper pleaded guilty to third-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance and was sentenced to 45 days in prison. Lagares pleaded guilty to criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree and was sentenced to six years in prison.
An undercover detective who worked on the case was arrested this month as part of a crackdown on illegal card games on Staten Island, according to prosecutors. The office of Bridget Brennan, the special narcotics prosecutor for New York, said the detective’s role in the case against the students was “minimal.”
“We will continue to assess the evidence, but at this point we don’t foresee any significant impact,” Brennan’s office said in an e-mailed statement. “The detective appears to be a peripheral witness in the cases that are still ongoing.”
The detective’s arrest may help improve the plea offer for David, Myers said.
“The offer might get better,” Myers said. “It always helps in a bargaining situation.”
All five students remain free on bail. Their next court appearance is scheduled for July 19.
Columbia, founded in 1754, has about 25,000 students and is one of eight schools in the northeastern U.S. that make up the Ivy League. Graduates include President Barack Obama and Warren Buffett, the chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
The case is People v. David, 00038N/2011, New York State Supreme Court, New York County (Manhattan.)