In response to the shocking video of the apparent murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, people across the country have protested against police brutality and racism. Most of the protesters have been peaceful and well-intentioned, though some have unfortunately used the occasion as an opportunity for violence and looting. Recently, three people were notably arrested and charged in federal court in Brooklyn (the Eastern District of New York) for federal crimes relating to the use of explosive Molotov cocktails against NYPD vehicles. Samantha Shader, a woman from upstate New York, was arraigned on Monday and charged with Causing Damage by Fire in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 844(i). Astonishingly, two New York attorneys – Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman – have also been arrested for similar conduct and are presently awaiting their arraignment in federal court on presumably the same charge. It’s an unusual charge to see in federal court, but also an extremely serious one.
18 U.S.C. § 844(i) makes it a federal crime punishable between 5 and 20 years to “[m]aliciously damage or destroy, or attempt to damage or destroy, by means of fire or an explosive, any building, vehicle, or other real or personal property used in interstate or foreign commerce or in any activity affecting interstate or foreign commerce.” (The penalties are higher when public safety officers sustain injuries).
According to the complaint (as well as video footage available on the Internet) – Ms. Shader allegedly threw a Molotov cocktail (a bottle of flammable beer containing a burning rag or cloth) through the window of a police vehicle while it was occupied by four police officers. Thankfully, no police officers were injured. According to the publicly-available complaint filed against her, Ms. Shader has also admitted to the conduct. In addition, it is alleged that just a few hours later, the two aforementioned lawyers threw similar Molotov cocktails into an empty NYPD vehicle in Brooklyn.
Defending against these cases is going to be challenging for their attorneys. Ms. Shader probably has no defense whatsoever, assuming that her statement was voluntarily given to the police. As much as Mr. Mattis, an African-American attorney, may have a valid grievance about police brutality in America, there is no First Amendment or protest exception to this criminal statute. These attorneys could go to trial and attempt to persuade juries to “nullify” their cases, meaning find them not guilty where the evidence clearly proves their guilt. The Eastern District of New York is an extremely diverse jury pool – almost certainly the most diverse jury pool in the U.S. – but it seems unlikely that a jury of 12 would unanimously agree to forgive this sort of conduct that jeopardizes lives and safety.
Defense attorneys are going to have to fight hard to try to persuade federal prosecutors to charge their clients differently, in order to avoid stiff jail sentences. Federal prosecutors rarely if ever make deals for “lesser included offenses,” but there are some charges that could be potentially substituted for 18 U.S.C 844(i) that do not have the same penalties, e.g. 18 U.S.C. § 33, 18 U.S.C. § 231, 18 U.S.C. §2232. Perhaps they could be permitted to plead guilty to one of these charges in satisfaction of the primary charge. Otherwise, their attorneys might try to have the case charged in state court, as well, with the hope that their clients could plead guilty to an offense with a lesser penalty in state court with the federal court being dismissed as covered by those state-court pleas. This is admittedly something of a long shot but perhaps worth considering under the circumstances.
Ultimately, this case is most likely going to be about demonstrating remorse and good character to the prosecutors in the hopes of earning some mercy or leniency from them. A “proffer” could be necessary to do so. Otherwise, they’ll likely be forced to accept a plea with a five-year mandatory minimum sentence.
Matthew Galluzzo is a former Manhattan state court prosecutor and experienced federal court defense attorney on the CJA panels for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York. If you or a loved one have been arrested or charged with a federal crime, you should strongly consider contacting him immediately.