The Price (in Years) of Celebrity

Slate's blog on legal issues.
April 16 2008 6:45 AM

The Price (in Years) of Celebrity

The impending sentencing of Wesley Snipes on his misdemeanor tax convictions nicely frames an interesting question about celebrity and sentencing.

In celebration of Tax Day, the government filed its sentencing memo today, urging (not surprisingly) that the judge send Snipes to jail for the full three years he's facing. There are plenty of reasons a sentence like that makes sense—his acquittal on the felony charges seems a matter of anti-tax sentiment, potentially allowing a judge to sentence him for acquitted conduct, and, of course, the sums in question clearly merit a substantial sentence—but let's put those aside for now.

Instead, I'd love to hear from my fellow bloggers about these two bits from the sentencing memo:

"In the defendant Wesley Snipes, the court is presented with a wealthy, famous, and inveterate tax scofflaw"

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and

"The multifarious nature of his schemes and the deterrence value of a substantial prison sentence for this truly notorious offender call for a full 36 months in prison."

Basically, what the government is arguing here is that Snipes needs to be hammered for his celebrity. The clear suggestion is that because he's a high-profile defendant, sending him to prison for a long period of time is like a deterrent bonanza. The thing that strikes me, though, is that unlike political trials, or those of thieving cops who abuse a position of trust, Snipes is an actor who never took an oath to serve, protect, or do much of anything else other than look out for No. 1. So here, unlike those other high-profile or political cases that involve an abuse of trust or authority, we really are talking about a sentencing enhancement purely on the basis of notoriety.

Having been a public defender for more than a decade, I'm not so naive as to think that high-profile defendants don't get hammered all the time just because they have the misfortune of having their crimes make the paper, but I haven't often seen quite such a direct and unabashed plea for a harsher sentence grounded in this particular reasoning.

So, should celebrities get hammered for having chosen to live such a public life?  Is this an argument we think the court will actually countenance?  Any guesses as to what happens on the 24th?

I'll go on record as saying Snipes is going in, and going in for a while.  Probably north of a year and very possibly for the statutory maximum.

Guesses anyone?