On a day when we can all celebrate a great American artist's release from prison, let's not lose sight of the ridiculousness that landed him there.
Lil Wayne was convicted of something called "attempted criminal possession of a weapon," which is every bit the nightmare of creative criminalization that the name suggests. Not satisfied with simply punishing people for "criminal possession of a weapon," New York's gun trafficking statute makes a single, vague allusion to the crime of "attempted criminal possession of a weapon." While the statute itself doesn't go into the semantic differences between "possession" and "attempted possession," a case note dredged up on Lexis Nexis provides a sense of what a conviction for attempted possession requires in New York:
Defendant's conviction of attempted criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree upon his guilty plea would be reversed, the plea vacated, and the matter remitted for further proceedings, where the crime required the intent to possess a loaded firearm [emphasis added] and defendant persistently maintained, both prior to and during the allocution, that he kept the gun in question "unloaded on purpose" since the circumstances surrounding the commission of the crime as related by defendant did not clearly spell out the requisite elements of the crime...
So prosecutors have to establish a defendant's intent to possess a specific illegal firearm. But that firearm can be totally imaginary. Another case note illustrates how the "attempted possession" law is aimed at making it easier to prosecute people who might be theoretically connected to some kind of firearm-related crime, but who are not in possession of a firearm at the particular moment they're searched. As one can imagine, this is easily abused:
In a prosecution for attempted criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree, the trial court erred in denying defendant's motion to suppress the holster found on defendant's person and the resulting statement given by the defendant to the police, where the holster was seized as a result of an improper frisk: an officer arrived at the scene in response to a call of a "burglary in progress...possible man with a gun" and saw defendant standing in the driveway of the subject premises arguing with a man on the stoop; the officer did not conduct any preliminary questioning of defendant, or the man on the stoop, but instead, forcible detained and frisked defendant based on the vague assertion that defendant appeared somewhat "restricted" and self-conscious in his hand movements and brushed into him while arguing with the man on the stoop.—People v Delmonico (1983, 2d Dept) 94 AD2d 773, 462 NYS2d 723.
Was Lil Wayne in any way comparable to our "man on the stoop," who possessed firearm-related paraphernalia at the scene of a violent burglary, and whose civil rights were nevertheless violated as a result? Not even close, according to this MTV News story back from when Lil' Wayne reported to prison eight months ago:
Ultimately, what Lil Wayne pleaded guilty to amounts to him being able to have access to a gun. Police did not find a weapon on the rapper when his tour bus was searched. Rather, the gun—registered to his manager— as in a bag located near the rapper, hence the attempted charge.
Lil Wayne went to jail because New York has basically criminalized any access to an existing or even hypothetical illegal handgun, which, in New York, covers pretty much all handguns. So a law that criminalizes intent was used to punish someone who was never accused of having any plans to commit any crime with an illegal handgun that he might have needed to protect himself, and that, in any event, wasn't even his. As if this weren't already a shade Orwellian, consider why the NYPD even raided Wayne's tourbus outside Manhattan's Beacon Theatre in July of 2007:
The "Lollipop" rapper is accused of stashing a loaded .40-caliber pistol aboard his tour bus. The vehicle was parked outside New York's Beacon Theatre, when an officer, believing to smell marijuana, searched the bus and uncovered the gun.
Lil Wayne just spent eight months in prison for violating an extremely stupid and maybe even unconstitutional law, an infraction that was uncovered through his suspected violation of an even stupider law. The entire sorry episode that landed Weezy behind bars is a sobering civics lesson, the sort of case that the phrase "if it can happen to ___, it can happen to anyone" was invented for. It's great that Lil Wayne's out of prison, but unconscionable that he was ever there at all.