Sebastian Telfair Faces Staggering Legal Battle Against Weapons Charges

2:31 | NBA
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Wednesday June 14th, 2017

Former NBA point guard Sebastian Telfair faces multiple felony weapons charges after New York Police Department officers discovered three loaded firearms, a semi-automatic rifle, significant amounts of ammunition and a bullet-resistant vest in a car driven by Telfair last Sunday. If convicted, the 32-year-old faces three and half to 15 years in prison.

At around 3:00 a.m., Telfair was pulled over for driving with his headlights off. If that had been Telfair’s only mistake, he would have been issued a warning or a citation, and continued on his way. Upon approaching the car, however, officers smelled marijuana—which, in New York, is only legal for medicinal purposes. In plain view, the officers then noticed a burning blunt on the dashboard. These observations indicated that the car and its occupants were implicated in criminal activity. Officers thus determined that they had probable cause, which is required to conduct a warrantless search, to enter the car. While examining the car’s interior, police found the weapons and ammunition as well as two bags of marijuana. Telfair’s 18-year-old nephew, Jami Thomas, was a passenger in the car and was also arrested.

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It remains unknown why Telfair would be driving a car with multiple loaded weapons, ammunition, a vest and drugs. One might surmise that the extent of weaponry and ammunition found in the car exceeds typical self-defense goals. Along those lines, this kind of fact pattern invites speculation that Telfair may have been involved, or was planning involvement, in a criminal act. To date, however, there is no indication or publicly known evidence that Telfair had any such unlawful plans. For the time being it appears that Telfair was “merely” driving around with a small arsenal, for whatever reason.

Telfair’s attorney, Edward Hayes, has stressed that the guns were licensed in Florida. While an out-of-state license suggests that Telfair lawfully obtained the guns, it is not an effective defense for carrying those guns in New York City. As NYC criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor Jeremy Saland tells SI.com, “You could even have a permit to carry a gun elsewhere in the state of New York, but if you don't have the requisite license in the City you will face a criminal charge.”

Further, as Saland stresses, New York’s firearm laws are among the strictest in the U.S. In fact, it may be the worst state to be found with an unlicensed loaded gun.

“If you posses a loaded firearm outside your home or place of business without the requisite permit,” Saland warns, “you will spend a minimum of three and a half years in a cold cell somewhere upstate upon conviction. Even more frightening, you could be calling state prison ‘home’ for five, ten and up to fifteen years.”

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A career of great expectations, adequate results and guns mixed in

Telfair last played in the NBA in 2014, before the Oklahoma City Thunder waived him. He played for seven NBA teams over 10 seasons, during which time he earned $19 million in salary. Telfair made millions of additional dollars in endorsements, including a deal with Adidas worth reportedly between $12 million to $15 million. He finished his basketball career in Chinese Basketball Association in 2015, playing for the Xinjiang Flying Tigers.

Telfair was well known before he entered the NBA in 2004. A cousin of Stephon Marbury, the 5’11" “Bassy” was a phenom at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. Celebrities like Jay-Z and Spike Lee would watch Telfair dominate high school games. National media predicted incredible things for his future. Like his friend LeBron James had done the year prior, Telfair skipped college and went straight to the NBA.

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Unlike LeBron, Telfair never lived up to the hype. The Portland Trail Blazers selected him with the No. 13 pick in the 2004 NBA draft, but traded him to Boston two years later after disappointing results. He continued to underwhelm with the Celtics, who dealt him to the Timberwolves in 2007 as part of the Kevin Garnett trade.

Telfair bounced from team to team after that, but proved sturdy enough to carve out a 10-year career in the NBA, a "success" by most standards. Along those lines, any career that features salary and endorsement earnings north of $30 million seems like quite the feat.

Telfair’s capable play was at times overshadowed by legal problems with guns. In 2006, the Blazers fined Telfair after a loaded gun, which he claimed belonged to his girlfriend, was found in a pillowcase belonging to Telfair. The gun was discovered before a team flight out of Boston Logan Airport. A year later, Telfair was arrested in Yonkers, New York for second-degree possession of a handgun, which police found after pulling Telfair over for driving 77 miles per hour. The arrest prompted Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck to order that Telfair’s nameplate be removed from his locker. Telfair ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession of a weapon and was sentenced to three years of probation.

If Telfair is convicted on the latest charges, his criminal record in New York could be considered in his sentencing. The record would be an “aggravating” factor, meaning one that encourages the judge to impose a harsher punishment. The underlying logic for a heightened punishment would be that Telfair didn’t learn his lesson the first time around.

Can Telfair mount a legal defense?

On the surface, the case against Telfair might seem insurmountable. The guns appear to be his; by all accounts, he lacked the necessary permit to carry in New York City; and the guns were loaded at the time of discovery. Open and shut case—perhaps.

Telfair may have some room to defend himself. For one, he could argue that the officers lacked probable cause to search the car and thus may have violated his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizures. He might contend, for instance, that the marijuana blunt was not in plain view and that there was no discernable smell of marijuana.

SI Vault: Read SI's cover story on Sebastian Felfair from 2004, "Ready for the Big Time"

Further, as Saland suggests, “it’s not clear to me why the police searched the entire car” as opposed to only the interior of the car where the marijuana was allegedly observed. Telfair’s exact relationship to the car, which has Florida plates, has also not been made established and that relationship could impact whether he “possessed” the guns at the time of arrest. Perhaps Telfair was driving someone else’s car and someone else, unbeknownst to Telfair, placed the guns in the car (of course, this defense is greatly weakened if the guns belonged to Telfair).

Whether Telfair’s nephew, Jami Thomas, cooperates with law enforcement or defends his uncle may ultimately influence the strength of the case against Telfair. If Thomas cooperates he would be in line to receive a lighter punishment, but doing so may require him to implicate his uncle in wrongdoing.

Telfair’s best play may be to try to cut a plea deal with prosecutors. In 2009, New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who accidentally shot himself in Manhattan’s Latin Quarter Club and, like Telfair, faced felony criminal possession charges, pleaded guilty to one count of attempted criminal possession of a weapon, a lesser charge. Through his plea deal, Burress was sentenced to two years in prison rather than face the prospect of three and a half years in prison.

Michael McCann, SI's legal analyst, provides legal and business analysis for The Crossover. He is also an attorney and a tenured law professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

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