US Senior District Court Judge Whitman Knapp died Monday at age 95 in Manhattan, where he resided. While Knapp is most widely known for leading a two-year investigation into New York City police corruption in the early 1970s, he also made a mark as a jurist fed up with drug war excess by refusing to hear drug cases after 1993.
Appointed to head the Knapp Commission investigation in 1970, Knapp uncovered a pattern a corruption that tarnished not only the brass of the NYPD but the political career of the man who appointed him, Mayor John V. Lindsay (D). The scandals uncovered by the Knapp Commission were memorialized in popular culture through the movie "Serpico," based on the NYPD detective who first blew the whistle.
After completing his work with the Knapp Commission, Knapp was appointed to a federal judgeship in the Southern District of New York by President Richard Nixon. In 1993, Judge Knapp broke publicly and dramatically with the war on drugs he had seen daily in his courtroom. Along with Judge Jack B. Weinstein of New York's Eastern District, Knapp declared he would no longer preside over drug trials. In so doing Knapp and Weinstein declared they were protesting "failed drug policies" that emphasized arrests and harsh, inflexible sentences over prevention and drug treatment.
A year later, Judge Knapp would go even further, writing a New York Times op-ed piece strongly suggesting that decriminalization of drug use and possession could be the answer. Ever judicious, Knapp averred that he did not know if decriminalization was the right answer, but of one thing he was sure: "I have concluded that Federal drug laws are a disaster," he wrote. "It is time to get the Government out of drug enforcement. As long as we indulged the fantasy that the problem could be solved by making America drug free, it was appropriate that the Government assume the burden. But that ambition has been shown to be absurd."
While Knapp's public pronouncements on drug policy were increasingly scarce after the mid-1990s, a 1999 interview on WNBC-TV found that his views had remained essentially unchanged. When asked if he thought decriminalization was still the path to follow, he said, "I used to be sure that decriminalizing would cure the ills, but I am not sure of that. I don't know exactly what should be done. I know that what's being done now is wrong. The statutes on drug offenses are ridiculous."
In that interview, Judge Knapp was clear on where the blame should lie: "The culprit was the Congress. The government itself, and the ridiculous laws the politicians have spewed because it's great to be considered tough on drugs."
While there are no concise,
easily extractable phrases, interested readers can get a bit of the flavor
of Judge Knapp's judicial tone in an opinion of his available online at
the valuable new compendium of judicial disgust with the drug war: