Gun charges may allow Raymond Felton to avoid jail, maintain career
In what was an otherwise terrible day for Raymond Felton, Manhattan prosecutors reportedly charged the New York Knicks point guard on Tuesday with "only" Class D and Class E felonies for unlawful possession of a firearm. Adam Zagoria of SNY.tv was the first to break news of the charges, which stem from events earlier in the day. Felton's estranged wife, Ariane Raymondo-Felton, reportedly provided a Belgian-made pistol to New York police and said it belonged to the nine-year NBA veteran. Raymondo-Felton's decision may have followed an argument between the player and an unnamed woman described in some published reports as a girlfriend. Felton could have faced charges for a Class C felony, which would have carried a minimum prison sentence of three-and-a-half years under New York law. Class D and E felonies, in contrast, each carry a minimum of one year behind bars, but a judge has discretion to impose a lesser sentence. The net result is that Felton may be able to avoid jail time, especially if his attorneys can work out a plea deal.
No travel restrictions have been placed on Felton, who's next due in court on June 2. As a result, Felton will be able to play with the Knicks in NBA cities across the United States, although the decision to allow him to play the Toronto Raptors on April 11 will be made by Canadian immigration authorities. Until then, he must comply with a protective order that limits his ability to contact Raymondo-Felton. Felton's lawyers are likely to use the time to see if prosecutors are amendable to a plea deal that would see him avoid spending any time in jail, though a judge would have final say on any sentencing. Felton's attorneys likely would argue that in lieu of jail time, Felton perform significant community service and serve any sentence in a halfway house.
The attempt to avoid more serious charges may center on the quality of evidence implicating him and the willingness of witnesses other than Raymondo-Felton to testify against him. Felton is poised to argue the gun does not belong to him. He would likely describe Raymondo-Felton as unreliable and, given their marital difficulties, driven by an agenda to extract money from him in a divorce. Whether such a tactic would be based on fact or be well received by a judge and jury are separate matters. Felton can also raise questions as to how the police obtained the gun, given that its transport by Raymondo-Felton or her attorney would technically count as unlawful possession. Also, it is unclear if Felton's alleged girlfriend is willing to testify against him. If she saw Felton with the gun, her testimony would prove crucial. But, as a practical matter, she will not be compelled to testify against Felton.
The NBA has not yet taken action against Felton and may wait for the criminal process to play out. While the league was quick to suspend Gilbert Arenas in 2010 following his terrible decision to bring guns into the Washington Wizards' locker room, the relationship between the gun and Felton has not been established in this case. The NBA is surely concerned about players being identified with guns, but the league, led by new commissioner Adam Silver -- an attorney -- also values process and fairness. The players' association would also remind the NBA that if it suspends Felton for more than 12 games, he has a right to appeal the suspension to a neutral arbitrator.
As for the Knicks, while they may have hoped to terminate Felton's contract under the good citizenship clause of the Uniform Player Contact, NBA teams have repeatedly been denied the ability to void contracts. This was true for Latrell Sprewell, Vin Baker and Arenas. The fact that Felton's charges are less serious than originally anticipated would only make it harder for the Knicks to escape paying Felton $3.7 million next season and, if Felton exercises a player option, $4.0 million in 2015-16.
Michael McCann is a Massachusetts attorney and the founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. He is also the distinguished visiting Hall of Fame Professor of Law at Mississippi College School of Law.