In his senior year of high school, honors student Justin Laboy started falling for a woman who he thought was simply the new girl in class. The teenager’s crush turned out to be a 25-year-old undercover policewoman named Naomi who would later put him behind bars with a felony drug conviction. A conviction that will dog him for the rest of his life.
For Valentine’s Day, New York Times writer Robbie Brown told Justin’s story on NPR’s This American Life. According to Justin, he and the undercover cop began flirting almost immediately. They started hanging out together, sharing intimate stories about their families and texting between classes. Justin even asked her to prom. But before prom came around Naomi asked if he could score her some marijuana.
Justin had never sold pot before. But he was eager to impress and agreed to find some. Days went by during which Naomi texted Justin anxiously, asking if he had the goods for her yet. Under pressure, he eventually sought out his cousin’s friend and bought a small bag of marijuana that he put in Naomi’s bag during class. He intended it as a gift, but she insisted that he take $25 as compensation.
In Florida, selling any amount of marijuana is a felony. And selling on or near a high school comes with even harsher penalties--a law likely intended to protect teenagers but that in practice gives them longer sentences than their adult counterparts. Justin spent a week behind bars, was convicted of a felony and sentence to three years probation.
Justin had planned to go into the air force after college. Now, with a felony conviction, he won't be permitted to serve in any part of the military and will find it considerably harder to get decent job, as most places hesitate to hire ex-felons.
For many, the word felon elicits the image of someone who is untrustworthy and potentially violent. I don't believe that charge fairly describes Justin Laboy. It strikes me that I could have made the same mistake if put in his position. Ask yourself if you or someone you respect might have done the same. Your kids? A friend or sibling? Would that person deserve to be labeled a felon for the rest of his life?
In Palm Beach County the police have already used this tactic to arrest and convict over 80 students at numerous high schools. And sadly, this tactic is not unique to sunny Palm Beach.
In the Huffington Post, Tony Newman likened this story to that of 18-year-old Mitchell Lawrence, a student from Great Barrington, Mass. who served two years in jail for selling a joint to an undercover cop. According to Newman, “the officer befriended Lawrence and his friends, hanging out with them after school. One day the cop asked if Lawrence had any weed. Lawrence gave the cop a joint and the cop handed him $20. Lawrence hesitated, but the cop insisted on giving him the money. Because they were less than 100 feet from school, “selling” the joint carried a two-year mandatory minimum sentence.”
No police department should expend taxpayer money to trick kids into becoming one-time drug dealers just to slap a felony conviction on their record. It’s shameful and robs too many of a better future. Nancy Reagan once told us that the drug war was fought to protect our kids, but with these tactics it’s more often taking away their future.
We can’t change this disgraceful practice across the country with one campaign, but we can start the ball rolling by changing them in Palm Beach. Tell Mayor Gail Coniglio to stop sending undercover police officers into her high schools. Beefing up the county’s drug conviction rate is not worth robbing more kids of their future.