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Under The Law: Queens’ diverse cultures challenge penal law

As the country has generally moved toward conservatism, so have our legislators, judges and prosecutors. Even the days of granting low-level first offenders - particularly youths - a form of deferred prosecution in exchange for community service, known as "second chance" in Queens County, are waning. To some readers this will undoubtedly be greeted with approval. To others, especially those of us who are their defense attorneys, things have simply gone over the edge.The new hyped crimes of the moment entail computer sex and domestic violence . The first usually involves a detective who goes onto the Internet, pretends to be an underage child of 13 or 14 and engages older, sometimes otherwise harmless men into arranging a liaison for a sex fest. The typical profile of these computer sex criminals is that of a middle-aged, Caucasian male, middle income or higher, well-educated, having no criminal record of any kind.The key question is whether many of these men would have ever actually engaged in such conduct without the active encouragement of the police. In spite of the fact that these are crimes with fictional victims, they do make headlines. Indeed, in several local jurisdictions, including Queens, the arrest of such people is becoming a growth industry. A jail term is always demanded by the district attorney as a matter of policy.Domestic violence is most certainly a serious problem. However, we have many newcomers to our community coming from cultures where women have traditionally been second- class citizens who may be abused at will. So to begin with, there is a cultural divide between our penal law and the realities of life in Queens County.Instead of rushing to brand these men - they are usually men - as criminals, endangering their immigration status or insisting that they attend many hours of anger management classes at prices they can hardly afford, we really need a program which deals with the assimilation of such couples into the American mainstream of thinking on these issues.Then, too, women have recognized that the pendulum has now swung their way, and sometimes - more often than prosecutors are likely to admit - they abuse the system by inventing or exaggerating these disputes to gain an advantage in a matrimonial case, obtain sole custody of the marital residence or simply for revenge.Finally, from a defense attorney's standpoint - hardly the most popular point of view, I agree - the tools of our trade are rapidly being taken away from us. Many of the constitutional protections expanded by the U.S. Supreme Court back in the wild '60s are being reined in or transmuted into watered-down versions of their former selves. Suppressing illegally acquired evidence is tougher than ever, eliminating prejudicial lineups is almost impossible and there is talk of reversing the Miranda ruling.I guess the point of all this is that after 38 years of practice, I can honestly say that things are currently at a low ebb from a defense standpoint. The only change that appears to be working, quite sadly, is the stockpiling of convicted felons for longer and longer periods of time, thereby reducing crime statistics amongst dedicated recidivists. If that's social progress, I'm happy to be that much closer to retirement.Stephen Singer is co-chair of the Queens County Bar Association's Criminal Court Committee. This is a part of a series of articles arranged by the QCBA as a public service to our readers.

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