Articles Posted in Firearms Offenses

I’ve handled hundreds of gun cases prosecuted in the federal court system over the past 36 years, here in Atlanta and elsewhere.  Most federal gun prosecutions involve a claim that the Defendant had a firearm (or ammunition) and the accused was a “prohibited person” who cannot have the gun.  Most times it is the usual “FIPF”, meaning a felon-in-possession-of-a-firearm.  However, this same law law applies to firearms possessors who might be an illegal alien,  a fugitive from justice, committed to a mental institution, convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence crime, or, who is an illegal user of a controlled substance.  Yes, that’s right, smoking a joint in a state where that is illegal might cause the dope-smoker to get prosecuted in federal court if the person’s other hand is wrapped around a firearm.

The main federal gun law, (18 U.S.C. §922(g)) says it is unlawful for anyone who falls into one of the prohibited categories to “…possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm or ammunition.”  Then, a separate sentencing provision (18 U.S.C. §924(a)(2)) says the accused person is liable to a prison sentence if he or she “knowingly” violates §922(g).  Over the years, the Courts ruled that there are three elements of this crime: 1) prohibited status, 2) possession, and 3) that the possession was in or affecting commerce.  Also, over the years, prosecutors convinced the courts that the word “knowingly” only applies to one of these elements, namely, the possession requirement.  As a result, there are lots of prior cases ruling that prosecutors don’t need to prove that the accused person “knew” he or she was a prior felon, illegal immigrant, fugitive, or a dope smoker.   Continue reading

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the root word of “fascination” as “to transfix or hold spellbound by an irresistible power.”  Since 1971, the Supreme Court of the United States has on all least 13 occasions directly addressed various aspects of the federal gun crime found at 18 U.S.C. §924(c).  A total of forty-three Supreme Court cases involve people convicted of this law, even if the issue did not directly involve the language of this statute.  The High Court’s “fascination” with this statute continues, this time with a case out of Iowa, Dean v. United States, the docket for which can be found here.  The Supreme Court granted review of the case this past October, and will hear arguments on the last day of February, 2017.

Those of us who regularly practice criminal law in the federal court system generally refer to this statute as “924(c)”.  The history of the law is interesting, and somewhat relevant to current public debates.  In 1968, violent crime rates were rising, reaching a peak in the early 1990’s, after which they have dropped significantly.  The FBI numbers can be found on their database. Continue reading

The United States Supreme Court reversed a federal criminal sentence last week that was imposed on a man who had a lengthy record.  The Defendant fell into the maw of the much-maligned Armed Career Criminal Act (the “ACCA”).  Under the ACCA, a person who possesses a firearm and who has three or more qualifying prior convictions is sentenced to a minimum of 15 years in custody, with the maximum of life imprisonment.  What is called the “residual clause” of the law makes a person eligible for this heavy-duty punishment if any of his or her three prior crimes “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”  The Supreme Court, in a very rare move, held this language to be so imprecise as to violate the Constitution.  The case is United States v. Johnson, and can be accessed here.

A couple of important things about the ACCA before we discuss the decision.  First, the law was part of that horrible mess enacted in 1986 when our Nation’s rulers decided to impose amazingly long sentences for a whole variety of crimes.  This mess included the now-derided mandatory minimum sentences for various crimes, mostly involving drugs, which I wrote about recently here.  After these laws passed, most experienced practitioners in the federal criminal justice system could not even wrap their heads around fifteen years in custody for merely possessing a gun.  I recall a number of cases where prosecutors simply ignored this statute, believing it could not mean what it said.  By the early 1990’s, however, prosecutors got more comfortable in asking for these lengthy prison sentences. Pretty soon,  we all became accustomed to it, and defense attorneys then started challenging whether this penalty really applied to all of the Defendant’s prior crimes.

These challenges eventually worked their way up to the Supreme Court, resulting in five separate cases over a nine-year span. The first case told judges to use a “categorical approach” when deciding if the Defendant’s prior crime “involved” a “serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”  In other words, look only at the way the crime was defined, not what the person did.  Succeeding cases looked at whether various crimes like DUI, attempted burglary, not reporting to prison, or vehicular flight from the police did or did not fall within this imprecise standard of serious potential risk of physical injury to another.

I am always harping about how lawyers defending against federal crimes need to be creative, and need to challenge whether their clients even committed a crime. About 15 years ago, I raised a series of challenges against what is called the “straw purchase” theory of liability when a person buys a gun but later transfers the weapon to another person. The law merely says that gun dealer needs to keep records, and also says that the buyer cannot make a false statement about a “material” matter. ATF kept changing position, but finally said that it is a false statement about a material matter if the buyer intended to give the gun to another person. One of the cases where I raised this challenge resulted in an opinion in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and can be seen here.

Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court accepted a straw purchase case for review later this year or early in 2014. The case is United States v. Abramski.
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The United States Supreme Court recently announced that it will take on the case of U.S. v. Castleman. In that case, the federal court of appeals decided that Mr. Castleman’s prior conviction in Tennessee for “misdemeanor domestic assault” did not fall within the federal crime that prohibits gun possession by anyone with a prior conviction for a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence”. This case encompasses not only the national debate concerning guns and violence, it also shows how the federal government is trying to further and further expand the reach of federal crimes. Likewise, it demonstrates how good lawyers often prevail in federal criminal cases.

Like many Americans, Mr. Castleman apparently got into a domestic squabble. He was charged with a crime because he committed an assault on the mother of his child, and like so many incidents, he got a sentence of probation. Several years later, federal authorities investigated him for gun crimes, resulting in charges for violating Title 18, United States Code, section 922(g)(9), which makes it a crime for any person convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” to possess a firearm. The phrase “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” is defined as a misdemeanor offense, committed by a person with a specified domestic relationship to the victim, that “has, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon.”
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A recent case out of Alabama addressed the intersection between gun possession and having the right to vote restored after an earlier felony conviction. As just about everybody knows, a person convicted of a felony usually loses some of their “civil rights”, even if they never go to jail. The federal government makes it a separate crime if a previously-convicted felon possesses a firearm. Many states, however, have laws that quite sensibly restore a person’s “civil rights”. Another portion of the federal gun laws says that when a convicted felon’s civil rights have been “restored”, then the conviction does not count when deciding if the person violated the law prohibiting felons from having guns. Our beloved Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Atlanta decided that having a person’s right to vote restored under Alabama law was not the same as having ones civil rights (plural) restored, so that the person could be convicted for possession of a gun after a felony conviction. The case is United States v. Thompson.

in March, 1994 Mr. Thompson was convicted of assault, and under Alabama law he automatically lost the right to possess a firearm, to hold office, to serve on juries, and to vote. Eleven years later, Thompson applied to the State of Alabama for restoration of his civil rights. He got a letter from the State of Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles in early, 2006, which said that he could once again register to vote and actually vote in elections. However, the letter also said that “THIS CERTIFICATE IS NOT A PARDON AND DOES NOT RESTORE, REMOVE OR ADDRESS ANY OTHER RIGHTS, PRIVILEGES OR REQUIREMENTS.” Another letter said that, ” If you desire to have any additional rights restored, please inquire at your local probation and parole office.” Three and a half years later, the police arrested Mr. Thompson while he had a gun. A federal grand jury charged Thompson in a one-count indictment with being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Thompson moved to dismiss the charges, pointing out that because his right to vote was restored, he fell within the exception described at 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20), which provides that “[a]ny conviction . . . for which a person . . . has had civil rights restored shall not be considered a conviction for purposes of this chapter, unless such . . . . restoration of civil rights expressly provides that the person may not ship, transport, possess, or receive firearms.” § 921(a)(20) (emphasis added).
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This Monday the federal Supreme Court issued its opinion in Abbott v. United States, together with Gould v. United States. The Court held 8-0 (Justice Kagan took no part in the decision) that a defendant is subject to the highest mandatory minimum sentence specified in § 924(c) unless another provision of law directed to conduct proscribed by that subsection imposes an even greater minimum. We are disappointed that the Court disregarded the plain language of the statute.

As we discussed in this post when the Court granted certiorari, § 924(c) contains a prefatory clause, called the “except” clause, that applies the subsection “[e]xcept to the extent that a greater minimum sentence is otherwise provided by this subsection or by any other provision of law.” We read that clause as plainly prohibiting the application of § 924(c) where “any other” greater minimum sentence applies. The government disagreed, arguing that the clause is triggered only when another provision commands a longer term for conduct that violates §924(c).

Gould argued the plain language of the clause: that it applied whenever any count of conviction at sentencing required a greater minimum sentence. Abbott proposed two potential happy mediums: that the minimum sentence “otherwise provided” must be one imposed for the §924(c) predicate crime or, in the alternative, for a firearm offense involving the same firearm that triggered §924(c). The Court rejected all three arguments.

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Davis v. United States. The Court will resolve a federal circuit court split: whether the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule applies to a search that is later ruled unconstitutional. This March, the Eleventh Circuit held in Davis that the exclusionary rule does not apply when the police conduct a search reasonably relying on well-settled precedent, even if that precedent is later overturned. We hope the Court reverses this decision.

In Davis, the defendant was a passenger in a routine traffic stop in Alabama. He gave the police officers a false name. When asked to exit the vehicle, Davis removed his jacket and left it in the car, then was taken toward a group of bystanders. The bystanders provided his real name, leading to Davis’s arrest for giving a false name. In the search incident to his arrest, the officers found a gun in the jacket, which was still in the car. Davis was convicted of possession of a firearm and sentenced to more than 18 years.

As we explained in this post, the Supreme Court decided Arizona v. Gant in April 2009. The Court held that police are authorized “to search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search,” unless some evidence related to the crime of arrest may be in the vehicle. This decision rendered the search in Davis unconstitutional.

Last month, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), which makes it a federal crime to use or possess a firearm in connection with a crime of violence, can apply to crimes of violence committed outside the United States. In U.S. v. Belfast, the first case prosecuting an individual under 18 U.S.C. § 2340A (the Torture Act,) the Court upheld a § 924(c) conviction where the American citizen defendant tortured people in Liberia.

The defendant, a man of many names whom the court referred to as Emmanuel, is the American born-and-raised son of Charles Taylor, a former president of Liberia who is currently on trial for crimes against humanity in the Special Court for Sierra Leone. President Taylor put Emmanuel in charge of the “Anti-Terrorism Unit,” which was known in Liberia as the “Demon Forces.” In that role, Emmanuel tortured many individuals between 1999 and 2002. Twelve pages of the Court’s 87-page opinion recount horrifying details of that torture.

The Court justified the application of § 924(c) to crimes of violence committed extraterritorially by arguing that the plain language of § 924(c) provides for its application to any crimes that “may be prosecuted in a court of the United States.” Because the Torture Act, which applies extraterritorially, may be prosecuted in federal courts, the Court reasoned, “a § 924(c) charge can arise out of extraterritorial conduct that is found to be in violation of the Torture Act.”

This Monday, the Eleventh Circuit held in Gilbert v. United States that, for federal sentencing purposes, the act of being a U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1 career offender is essentially a separate offense. Based upon the Supreme Court’s retroactive decision in Begay and the Eleventh Circuit’s implementation of that decision in Archer, Gilbert is actually innocent of committing two violent felonies, the basis for that offense. Because circuit law squarely foreclosed his claim when he raised it at sentencing, on appeal, and in his first 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion, Gilbert was entitled to relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2241. He may now be eligible for immediate release.

The Original Sentence and Appeals

In 1997, Gilbert was convicted of a crack cocaine offense and sentenced as a career offender under § 4B1.1 based upon previous convictions for possessing crack with intent to sell and carrying a concealed firearm. Under the then-mandatory Sentencing Guidelines, the enhancement increased his Guidelines range from 151-188 months to 292-365 months. Gilbert argued that carrying a concealed firearm was not a crime of violence, but the district court judge disagreed and, stating that he thought the sentence was too high, reluctantly sentenced Gilbert to 292 months. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit held that carrying a concealed firearm was a crime of violence for purposes of the career offender guideline. Gilbert’s pro se § 2255 motion was denied in 1999, all post-conviction options now exhausted.

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