As of this writing, Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman are scheduled to go on trial in March 2022, and to face a jury tasked with deciding whether they will spend the next 45 years—the mandatory minimum in their case, with life being the maximum—behind bars in a federal jail.
The crime committed by the two New York City lawyers that warrants such a draconian sentence, according to the U.S. Department of Justice? In May 202o, amidst raging protests over the murder of George Floyd by police, Rahman allegedly threw a lit Molotov cocktail through the already broken window of an empty New York City police car, then left the scene in a mini-van driven and owned by Mattis. Cops who arrested the pair—the criminal complaint and DOJ press release state the crime was documented by “an NYPD surveillance camera” and on-site witnesses—claim Mattis and Rahman’s van cargo included another unlit homemade explosive, a lighter and a tank of gasoline. As for the tossed Molotov cocktail, it failed to fully ignite, causing minimal damage to the already vandalized, unoccupied squad car.
Typically, a case like this—which former federal public defender and law professor Lara Bazelon described to me as “a very serious form of vandalism and property destruction, which is normally very much a state court issue”—would be handled by local Brooklyn prosecutors. Instead, following their arrest, Mattis and Rahman were sent to the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal prison recently criticized for its “disgusting, inhuman” conditions by one New York federal judge, and government attorneys took over the case. On paper, Trump DOJ lawyers justified this unorthodox upcharge by asserting that the NYPD is “an institution and organization receiving federal financial assistance” and that its squad cars are “used in interstate and foreign commerce.” But as Bazelon told me, that still makes the alleged offense “a federal crime in the most attenuated way,” and suggests “a politically motivated power move” by the Trump administration “to have the federal government step in and take over a case that by all rights should be in state court.”