Laser Show

Gina Longarzo stays grounded, even during cases with alleged national security implications

Published in 2009 New Jersey Super Lawyers — April 2009

On Dec. 31, 2007, Gina Mendola Longarzo's client David Banach was out on his deck with his 7-year-old looking at the stars. They were using a laser pointer. They were having fun. Until he got arrested.

Banach had unintentionally flashed a beam of light at a helicopter. Ten minutes later FBI agents were at his door, and not to help him ring in the new year. They took Banach—against his will—out of his home to FBI headquarters for polygraph tests. Even more startling: He was initially denied legal counsel before being subjected to those tests. Enter criminal defense attorney Longarzo.

Longarzo was referred this case from Banach's neighbor, who was a friend of her husband's. Longarzo had worked on many high-profile cases but this was her first interaction with the Patriot Act. She never thought it would turn into such a media circus. "This case was a fluke," says Longarzo. "I never knew it would get so much attention."

The story quickly spread to CNN, CBS, MSNBC, The New York Times, Wired and even The Taipei Times. Longarzo attributes Banach's arrest to heightened anxiety after Sept. 11, which she feels resulted in an "an improper expansion of government power. All of a sudden misdemeanor behavior was terrorist activity. You could throw a snowball at a passenger bus and be tried as a terrorist."

Banach was staring down the possibility of 25 years in prison and $500,000 in fines—and a prosecution team that wanted to make an example of him. "The case was an uphill brutal battle the whole way," says Longarzo. But she ended up negotiating a guilty plea and secured him two years of probation and no fines or penalties.

After his case, the relevant statute was amended to sift out similar non-malicious activity. According to Longarzo, the judge also restored Banach's reputation. "At sentencing, Judge John Lifland detailed his good deeds and longtime law-abiding life and upstanding reputation in the community."

Longarzo, unsurprisingly, has strong opinions on the Patriot Act. "It was put into place so quickly amidst all the hysteria of 9/11," she says, "that it obliterated hundreds of years of protections and jurisprudence for the criminally accused."

She feels blessed to be able to challenge those abuses of power. "This case was very near and dear to my heart," she says. "I fell in love with this sweet, down-home American family caught in this federal nightmare."

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