COLUMBUS, Ga. — Lance Brown was hungry and homeless, so he decided to get thrown in jail by hurling a brick through a glass door at the Columbus courthouse building.
Brown, 36, spent nine months in jail before his April trial. On Tuesday, he was sentenced to another month behind bars, and three years of probation that includes a six-month stay in a halfway house.
Brown’s case illustrates the struggle prosecutors face when dealing with homeless defendants who resort to crime to seek the safety of prison. They weigh whether to devote scarce resources to prosecuting a lower-level offense with the burden that comes with upholding the law and deterring others from breaking it.
Faced with more nights on the street, Brown said he thought lofting the brick through the building would give him at least a few hours in a place where “someone’s going to offer me a sandwich and drink.”
Robert Marbut, a national homelessness consultant, said it’s rare for homeless offenders to spend more than a night or two in custody, let alone almost a year. He said there need to be more alternative sentences to teach homeless offenders about life skills, hygiene and nutrition.
“That shows you how wacky things have gotten when we don’t have as a society an intermediate program,” Marbut said.
U.S. Attorney Michael Moore said he had little other choice than to charge Brown with malicious mischief, a crime that carried a 10-year maximum prison sentence.
“The unfortunate circumstances in which Mr. Brown found himself cannot be a justification for destroying property of the United States,” Moore said. “And while I am personally saddened by Mr. Brown’s plight, I regret that he chose to violate the law instead of taking help from those who offered it.”
Brown was previously convicted of two bank robberies in North Carolina and released from prison in August 2010 after spending about 10 years behind bars. He headed to the courthouse in downtown Columbus in July with a strange request for his probation officer: He wanted to know what he could do to get back behind bars. The officer, Billy Johnston, offered him a list of social services, but it didn’t take long for Brown to come up with his own idea.
He threatened to kill the president, a threat officers didn’t deem credible. Then he stormed from the building, found a brick and heaved it through the front door, tearing a gaping hole in the glass that cost about $1,400 to fix, court records show. He was immediately arrested by federal authorities and soon indicted by a grand jury on a charge of malicious mischief.
At his two-day trial in April, prosecutors called seven witnesses, including Johnston, who carefully recalled what led to Brown’s outburst. They also showed the jury a series of pictures of the damaged door and the brick he used.
Defense attorney Victor Arana called only Brown to the witness stand. He wanted to tell jurors about his attempts to avoid homelessness.
He said he became homeless after suffering a nervous breakdown and being kicked out of a local shelter because of a fight with another resident.
It took the jury only about 20 minutes to convict him, and at Tuesday’s sentencing hearing, Brown spent most of the time leaning back in his chair and staring at the ceiling.
His defense attorney argued that he should be released with time served. Prosecutors, who during the trial called him a manipulator who tried to game the system, didn’t disagree.
When it was Brown’s turn to talk, he issued a warning of sorts to the FBI agents and federal prosecutors in the courtroom.
“You can keep that probation,” he said in a brief but rambling statement. “I will probably make you guys chase me all around the country a few times.”
Prosecutor Mel Hyde was then asked what he thought about Brown’s statement. He grimly advised the judge of his hunch.
“I think you can probably take Mr. Brown at his word,” he said.