Criminal Defense of Athletes

When athletes commit crimes, it seems plastered across the papers – they hire high-powered celebrity attorneys, even if they are not experts in criminal defense. Very often, criminal cases will not go to trial, and a lot of the crimes that athletes commit are not violent, although those tend to get the most headlines. Athletes have a lot of collateral considerations when facing a criminal conviction, and a good defense lawyer will need to keep the plates spinning overhead.

Criminal defense lawyers for athletes need to have a strong understanding of multiple fields of law. Sometimes athletes face contractual complications upon an arrest or formal charge of a crime. These can require suspension procedures for any violations committed by the athlete, such as NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, which requires convicted of felony-level violence to sit out at least ten games. Other issues to consider are minimizing the publicity, since companies will be reluctant to push endorsements from a convicted criminal. Current contractual obligations between companies and the athlete could also be jeopardized, depending on the severity of the crime and the levels of publicity faced by the athlete. The collateral issues of accepting a plea bargain must be clearly understood by the defense attorney before creating any kind of meaningful strategy.

Another unique aspect of athletes and crimes is that many athletes live in the United States on the basis of a visa, and therefore immigration laws intersect with criminal laws. Sometimes, taking a good deal from the state that mitigates the criminal effects of that person’s behavior can have crippling consequences for that athlete’s professional career if they are an immigrant and here on a visa.

With all of these considerations in mind, criminal defense lawyers representing professional athletes have developed some creative defenses. Some athletes that have been accused of convicting some of the most heinous and violent crimes have attempted to use CTE as a defense. CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a degenerative brain condition stemming from repeated head injuries and concussions. It is often associated with athletes who tend to suffer blows to the head frequently. NFL and NHL athletes have been among the most frequently studied. One athlete, former professional wrestler Jimmy ‘Superfly” Snuka was charged with the murder of his girlfriend. His attorneys suggested that decades of being hit on the head significantly affected his competency to stand trial, as well as his competency to comprehend what he had done at the time of the murder. If these defenses are to be effective, defense lawyers must brush up on neurology and the disease of CTE. There is some concern that by implementing this defense, it will serve as a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card for some of the richest and most powerful people in the country, who can be free to commit violent crimes with impunity.

There will be an issue of first proving that the athlete has CTE – not easily done – and that the CTE was what actually caused the behavior of the athlete. This will not be an easy burden to overcome, but it could prove an effective method of punching holes in the state’s case, presenting some shadows in the reasonable doubt standard required for a conviction. Regardless, as medical technology improves and CTE is further studied, this could be a relevant defense used in legal strategies in representing professional athletes.

If you are an athlete charged with a crime, contact us today for a risk-free consultation at 212-736-3900.

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