Columbia University Drug Suspects Denied Request for Diversion

Two Columbia University students arrested last year on drug charges lost their bid to enroll in a pretrial diversion program that would let them avoid the possibility of a prison term of as long as 2 1/2 years.

Judge Michael Sonberg turned down the request for the program by Jose Stephan Perez, 20, of Atlanta and Michael Wymbs, 22, of New York, in New York state court in Manhattan today. Sonberg ordered another of the five defendants in the case, Christopher Coles, 21, of Philadelphia, to be evaluated for the program. Coles said he is addicted to marijuana.

“We think that the judge is wrong on the law and wrong on the facts and we are reviewing our appellate rights,” Wymbs attorney, Michael Bachner, said after the hearing. “This diversion program was created specifically for people like Michael Wymbs.”

The program, which was set up in 2009 as part of reform of the state’s so-called Rockefeller drug laws, allows judges to sentence some nonviolent offenders with substance abuse problems to treatment programs instead of incarceration, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The case of another defendant, Adam Klein, 21, of Closter, New Jersey, who also asked to be enrolled in the diversion program, was postponed so that his attorney, Alan Abramson, can file more paperwork, Abramson said. The four students are due back in court next month.

Profit Motive

Assistant District Attorney William Novak had argued in court documents that the four students -- who rejected plea agreements offered by prosecutors in May -- weren’t eligible for the diversion program because their sales were motivated by profit and not addiction.

Wymbs’s attorney, Bachner, said his client was addicted to drugs and alcohol the entire time was he at Columbia and was undergoing treatment while at school.

“If this was not a Columbia University press case I’m convinced they’d get diversion,” Bachner said. “The system created to help those with drug problems failed today.”

Five students -- Coles, Klein, Perez, Wymbs and Harrison David, 21, of Wrentham, Massachusetts -- were arrested in December after a five-month investigation named “Operation Ivy League.”

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.

Cocaine Sales

David pleaded guilty to selling cocaine to an undercover officer on July 19 in exchange for six months in jail and five years of probation. He was sentenced and began serving his prison term on Aug. 30.

The others face sentences of as long as 2 1/2 years if convicted of criminal sale of a controlled substance in the fifth degree, the most serious charge against each of them. All four turned down plea agreements in June that would have placed each of them on five years probation.

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.)

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