New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis has been charged with felonies for his alleged role in an altercation that took place in Pittsburgh last Sunday. According to a statement released by the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, the incident began when an unnamed 22-year old man recognized Revis while walking at around 2:30 am. He then approached Revis, who hails from nearby Aliquippa, Pa., to see if it was really Revis. Revis confirmed his identity to the man.
At that point, the encounter turned problematic.
The man took out his cell phone and started to record Revis, who promptly asked the man to stop. The man refused and continued to record Revis. A frustrated Revis then grabbed the man’s phone and tried, unsuccessfully, to delete the video. Revis then tossed the phone onto the street. Around this time, an unidentified 21-year-old man came to aid the 22-year-old man. As the two men argued with Revis, yet another unidentified man arrived at the scene. This person arrived to assist Revis, which led to an apparent square off between Revis and his associate on one side and the 22- and 21-year old guys on the other. Punches were then thrown and the 22- and 21-year-old men were knocked out. Witnesses told the police that the two men were unconscious for about 10 minutes. They were both hospitalized and one of them suffered a serious facial injury.
A crucial piece of evidence was left behind: the 22-year-old’s cellphone and its video contents. An officer reviewed the video and confirmed that Revis was present at the scene. It’s unclear whether the video implicates Revis in committing a crime. That said, and as explained below, Revis has been charged with robbery, terroristic threats, conspiracy and aggravated assault.
An attorney for Revis offers a very different version of the facts
It is worth noting that an incident report offered by law enforcement is one version of what took place, and a court or jury might later reject it. If and when Revis addresses the incident, he would likely offer a very different portrayal of what occurred and his role in it.
In the meantime, Blaine Jones, an attorney representing Revis, has issued a statement. Jones appears to confirm Revis’s presence at the scene of the incident but contradicts the narrative provided by the PPG. According to Jones, Revis was “physically assaulted” by “a group of at least five people” and Revis “feared for his safety and retreated from the aggressors.” Jones also stresses that Revis sought medical attention for injuries caused by the “attack.” Jones has also confirmed to ESPN that his client will comply with a forthcoming arrest warrant and will turn himself in.
The focus of Darrelle Revis's life is about to turn from football to defending himself from serious charges that, if they become convictions, will threaten 31-year-old former University of Pittsburgh star with several years in prison.
The prosecutor’s theory of robbery is likely that Revis used force to dispossess the man of his cell phone and, in doing so, inflicted serious physical injury on the man. It’s also possible that Revis threatened the man with serious bodily injury. Under Pennsylvania law, a conviction on first degree felony robbery would carry up to 20 years in prison. Knocking someone out and rendering them unconscious for 20 minutes would likely qualify as “serious bodily harm” and appropriate of a first degree charge.
A charge of terroristic threats is also serious, with a potential five-year prison sentence under Pennsylvania law. A terroristic threat is not synonymous with a “terrorist” threat. A terroristic threat is instead a threat to harm another person with the goal of terrorizing that individual. While the charges have not yet been explained by law enforcement, Revis is presumably accused of threatening the two men with harm in hopes of terrorizing them.
Conspiracy is a similarly worrisome charge for Revis. Conspiracy entails that Revis and his associate planned to commit a crime—in this case, knocking out the 21- and 22-year old men. With conspiracy, even if the associate of Revis threw all of the punches that caused the injuries, Revis could face the same criminal penalty as his associate. This would be the case if there is sufficient evidence of both a conspiracy and overt acts to accomplish that conspiracy. As a result, if Revis’s associate is convicted of first degree aggravated assault—which entails causing serious bodily injury by acting with extreme indifference to human life and carries a potential 20-year prison sentence—conspiracy would pose a potential 20-year prison sentence for Revis, too. Revis has also been charged with two counts of first degree aggravated assault, presumably for throwing punches that allegedly caused some of the injuries. A conviction on each would carry 20-year maximum sentences.
Even if Revis is convicted on all of these charges, he would likely face nowhere near the maximum penalty. Revis has no criminal record and is, by all accounts, a law-abiding citizen.
Still, a charged and convicted Revis could face some time behind bars. With that in mind, prior to any trial, Revis and his legal team may try to negotiate a plea deal with the office of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, Jr. that would impose a comparatively light sentence or even no prison time.
The two men could also sue Revis for personal injuries caused by the incident. Such a lawsuit, however, would only threaten Revis with a court order to pay money.
The defense strategy for Revis
As Blaine Jones (the attorney for Revis) contends, Revis could be the victim of a crime rather than a perpetrator. He might also be a victim and a perpetrator.
One key defense for Revis is that he acted in self-defense. A sensible reading of the available facts suggests that a complete stranger harassed Revis in the early morning hours. This stranger may have sought to aggravate Revis, perhaps to get Revis to do something regrettable while on video. Revis could assert that the man was invading his privacy. He might also insist that the man, by following him with a camera, may have been looking for trouble. If the man had been impaired from alcohol or drugs, Revis would have a more compelling argument.
In order to establish self-defense, Revis would need to show that his use of force was justifiable. Along those lines, he would need to show that he believed the force he inflicted was necessary to protect himself from being attacked. If Revis punched the man only because he was recording Revis without permission, Revis would not be able to successfully invoke self-defense—this is true even if the recording was unlawful. One cannot punch a photographer—even a photographer who is invading privacy—because being videotaped doesn’t threaten physical injury. If instead Revis used force to defend himself from an attack, self-defense would become a more viable defense. Also, if he had been threatened with imminent attack, Revis, per Pennsylvania’s “stand your ground” law, would have had no duty to retreat.
In addition to self-defense, Revis will assert that there was neither a conspiracy to commit a crime nor any terroristic threats. He will contend that his use of force was a spur of the moment decision, triggered by a stranger who was suddenly harassing him in the middle of the night. Along those lines, Revis will contend there was no opportunity to “conspire” with his associate since everything happened so quickly.
Further, Revis could direct attention to the time of the day: It was around 2:30 a.m., meaning it was dark outside. The persons involved in the incident and other witnesses may not have had a good visual read on the situation. Given the time, it also stands to reason that tiredness may have impaired witnesses' observations and perceptions.
The Jets and the NFL will monitor developments closely
Revis’s NFL career could be impacted substantially by this turn of events. For starters, the Jets may be more inclined to cut him. Revis has been a disappointment since the four-time All Pro signed a five-year contract with the Jets in 2015. The deal is worth $70 million, with $39 million guaranteed. Revis, who was the NFL’s most dominant cornerback during his first stint with the Jets (’07 to ’12), has seemingly lost a step and is now eyeing a position change to safety. As explained by Darryl Slater of NJ.com last November, the contract signed by Revis is structured so that the Jets could cut him during this off-season with manageable salary cap consequences. Revis’s legal issues only give the Jets more reason to cut him.
In addition to cutting Revis, the Jets could attempt to void his contract and thus nullify any obligation to pay him guaranteed money. If successful, such a move would relieve the Jets of having to pay Revis $6 million in guaranteed money in 2017. The Jets would also benefit through a reduced impact of Revis’s contract on the team’s salary cap going forward. While such a strategy may be appealing to the Jets and their fans, it is one that would face stiff resistance. Indeed, the Jets attempting to void its contractual obligations to Revis would likely trigger a protracted legal battle, pitting the team against both Revis and the National Football League Players’ Association.
For one, the standard NFL Player Contract contains no provision for voiding contractual guarantees based on the imposition of felony charges. Section 9(a) of the standard contract does contain language concerning “forfeitable breach,” and it lists several circumstances where forfeiture is authorized, such as when player is incarcerated and thus unavailable to play. None of those circumstances, however, involves yet-unproven criminal charges. In addition, according to an excellent review of Revis’s contract by Daryl Sutter, the contract does not contain any unique language that would authorize its guarantees being voided as a result of criminal charges.
The Jets surely realize that Revis would respond aggressively to any attempt by the team to void its obligation to pay him guaranteed money. He would do so by filing a grievance with the NFL system arbitrator. Later on, he might also file a breach of contract lawsuit. The Atlanta Falcons are familiar with these dynamics. The Falcons, Michael Vick and the NFLPA litigated for two years over the contractual impact of Vick’s incarceration for interstate dog fighting charges. The NFLPA disagreed with Vick and the NFLPA over whether bonus money already paid to Vick as part of a 10-year, $130 million contract was subject to forfeiture. The matter was ultimately resolved in part through a settlement and in part through a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Whether the Jets have the appetite for a legal fight over Revis’s contract remains to be seen.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will also be paying close attention to legal developments concerning Revis. Under Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement, Goodell is authorized to punish players for “conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football.” It is likely that Goodell will wait to see how the charges are resolved before issuing a fine or suspension.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and a tenured law professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.