Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Canadian Supreme Court declares gun mandatory minimums unconstitutional
A helpful reader alerted me to a notable sentencing ruling from our northern neighbor reported in this press account headlined "Supreme Court quashes mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes: Court upholds Ontario ruling that struck down mandatory minimum sentences of 3 and 5 years." Here are the basics:
The Supreme Court of Canada dealt the Harper government's tough-on-crime agenda a serious blow Tuesday by striking down a law requiring mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving prohibited guns. The 6-3 ruling, penned by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, said the statute was unconstitutional as it upheld a 2013 Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that labelled the law cruel and unusual.
The ruling said the mandatory minimum sentence could ensnare people with "little or no moral fault" and who pose "little or no danger to the public." It cited as an example a person who inherits a firearm and does not immediately get a license for the weapon. "As the Court of Appeal concluded, there exists a 'cavernous disconnect' between the severity of the licensing-type offence and the mandatory minimum three-year term of imprisonment," McLachlin wrote for the majority.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay said in a statement that the government will review the decision to determine "next steps towards protecting Canadians from gun crime and ensuring that our laws remain responsive."...
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said there is a place for mandatory minimums in certain situations, noting that past Liberal governments have introduced them for "extreme crimes."
"But I think the over-use of them that the Supreme Court has highlighted, by this Conservative government, isn't necessarily doing a service to Canadians, both by not necessarily keeping us that much safer and also wasting large amount of taxpayers dollars on unnecessary court challenges," he told reporters in Oakville.
Keeping Canadians safe is cited by the government as the reason for its tough sentencing laws. McLachlin took aim at that justification in her ruling. "The government has not established that mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment act as a deterrent against gun-related crimes," she wrote. "Empirical evidence suggests that mandatory minimum sentences do not, in fact, deter crimes."
The court was deciding two appeals involving mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes brought by the Ontario and federal attorneys general. The top court upheld the appeal court's quashing of both the three-year mandatory minimum for a first offence of possessing a loaded prohibited gun, as well as the five-year minimum for a second offence.
The Ontario and federal governments argued that the minimums do not breach the charter protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The new sentencing rules were enacted in 2008 as part of a sweeping omnibus bill introduced by the federal Conservatives.
The full ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada is available at this link.
April 15, 2015 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Monday, February 23, 2015
"What rights do felons have over their surrendered firearms?"
The question in the title of this post is the substance of the title of this helpful SCOTUS argument preview of Henderson v. US authored by Richard Re over at SCOTUSblog. Here are excerpts which highlight why I think of Henderson as an interesting and dynamic sentencing case:
Tuesday, the Court will hear argument in Henderson v. United States, a complex case that offers a blend of criminal law, property, and remedies, with soft accents of constitutionalism. The basic question is this: when an arrested individual surrenders his firearms to the government, and his subsequent felony conviction renders him legally ineligible to possess those weapons, what happens to the guns?
The petitioner, Tony Henderson, was a Border Patrol agent convicted of distributing marijuana, a felony offense. Shortly after being arrested in 2006, Henderson surrendered his personal collection of firearms and other weapons to federal agents as a condition of release during the pendency of his criminal case. According to Henderson, his weapons collection included valuable items that had long been in the family, as well as an “antique.” Moreover, the collection was and remains Henderson’s lawful property. So, starting in 2008, Henderson asked authorities to transfer his weapons collection to someone else. But prosecutors and courts alike declined. Understandably enough, Henderson didn’t want his collection to escheat to the government like so much feudal property. So he’s pressed his rights to the Supreme Court.
The legal issues start with a conflict between a procedural rule and a federal statute. Under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41, the government usually has to “return” a defendant’s lawful property. But that can’t happen in Henderson’s case because a federal criminal law (18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1)) prohibits convicted felons, including Henderson, from possessing firearms. So if Rule 41 were allowed to operate according to its terms, Henderson would instantly be in violation of Section 922(g)(1). The courts below recognized that result as contrary to federal law and policy. (In a footnote in its merits brief, the federal government acknowledges that some of Henderson’s long-withheld weapons collection actually doesn’t consist of firearms at all. The government accordingly assures the Court that the “FBI is making the necessary arrangements to return the crossbow and the muzzle-loading rifle to petitioner.”)
To get around Section 922(g)(1), Henderson asked the government to transfer his firearms to third parties who are permitted to possess such items – specifically, either his wife or a friend who had promised to pay for them. Those proposed transfers, Henderson points out, wouldn’t result in his own possession of the firearms. And, critically, the proposed transfers would honor Henderson’s continued ownership of the weapons.... While Rule 41 by its terms may authorize only the “return” of property, Henderson argues that the federal district courts have “equitable” authority to direct transfers to third parties....
Without questioning that federal equitable authority operates in this area, the courts below apparently rejected Henderson’s transfer request in part based on the ancient rule of “unclean hands.” Under this venerable maxim, a wrongdoer (whose hands are figuratively dirty) may not seek relief at equity in connection with his own wrongful act. Based on a broad view of that precept, the courts below seemed to say that convicted felons are categorically barred from equitable relief as to their government-held property. Henderson contends that this holding revives ancient principles of “outlawry,” whereby criminals lose the protection of the law, while also running afoul of the Due Process Clause, the Takings Clause, and other constitutional provisions. However, the Solicitor General disputes that the decision below actually rested on this ground and — more importantly — has declined to defend it.
Instead, the federal government defends the result below on the ground that Section 922(g)(1) should be read to prohibit not just felons’ actual possession of firearms, but also their “constructive possession” of such weapons. On this view, impermissible constructive possession occurs when a convicted felon can exert some control over the next physical possessor of a particular item of property. Thus, Henderson would exert constructive possession – barred by federal law – if he could direct the transfer of his firearms to any particular person, including his wife or friend. Such direction, the government contends, would also create an unacceptable risk of letting the firearm find its way back to the felon. A permissible approach, in the government’s opinion, would be for it to transfer weapons to a licensed firearms dealer for sale, with proceeds going to the convicted felon.
Having gotten the federal government to endorse some remedial third-party transfers – a significant development in itself – Henderson asks why a convicted felon can’t at least nominate specific third parties, like a museum or a relative, to receive previously surrendered firearms that double as historical artifacts or family heirlooms....
While the ultimate outcome may turn in part on case-specific facts, the case touches on a number of important public debates. This becomes most obvious when the parties peripherally joust over the Second Amendment. The case has also drawn a number of amici. For instance, the Institute for Justice connects the case to public debate over forfeitures by asserting an aged canon against such forfeitures. Meanwhile, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Rifle Association of America respectively argue from the Excessive Fines Clause and, of course, the Second Amendment. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the government’s only amicus, also joins issue.
February 23, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Sunday, January 18, 2015
"Smart Guns Save Lives. So Where Are They?"
The question in the title of this post is one that long-time readers know I have been asking on this blog for nearly a decade. Today the question also serves as the headline for this Nicholas Kristof op-ed in the New York Times. Here are excerpts:
About 20 children and teenagers are shot daily in the United States, according to a study by the journal Pediatrics. Indeed, guns kill more preschool-age children (about 80 a year) than police officers (about 50), according to the F.B.I. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This toll is utterly unnecessary, for the technology to make childproof guns goes back more than a century. Beginning in the 1880s, Smith & Wesson (whose gun was used in the Walmart killing) actually sold childproof handguns that required a lever to be depressed as the trigger was pulled. “No ordinary child under 8 years of age can possibly discharge it,” Smith & Wesson boasted at the time, and it sold half-a-million of these guns, but, today, it no longer offers that childproof option.
Doesn’t it seem odd that your cellphone can be set up to require a PIN or a fingerprint, but there’s no such option for a gun? Which brings us to Kai Kloepfer, a lanky 17yearold high school senior in Boulder, Colo. After the cinema shooting in nearby Aurora, Kloepfer decided that for a science fair project he would engineer a “smart gun” that could be fired only by an authorized user....
Kloepfer designed a smart handgun that fires only when a finger it recognizes is on the grip. More than 1,000 fingerprints can be authorized per gun, and Kloepfer says the sensor is 99.999 percent accurate. A child can’t fire the gun. Neither can a thief — important here in a country in which more than 150,000 guns are stolen annually.
Kloepfer’s design won a grand prize in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Then he won a $50,000 grant from the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation to refine the technology. By the time he enters college in the fall (he applied early to Stanford and has been deferred), he hopes to be ready to license the technology to a manufacturer.
There are other approaches to smart guns. The best known, the Armatix iP1, made by a German company and available in the United States through a complicated online procedure, can be fired only if the shooter is wearing a companion wristwatch.
The National Rifle Association seems set against smart guns, apparently fearing that they might become mandatory. One problem has been an unfortunate 2002 New Jersey law stipulating that three years after smart guns are available anywhere in the United States, only smart guns can be sold in the state. The attorney general’s office there ruled recently that the Armatix smart gun would not trigger the law, but the provision has still led gun enthusiasts to bully dealers to keep smart guns off the market everywhere in the U.S.
Opponents of smart guns say that they aren’t fully reliable. Some, including Kloepfer’s, will need batteries to be recharged once a year or so. Still, if Veronica Rutledge had had one in her purse in that Idaho Walmart, her son wouldn’t have been able to shoot and kill her.
“Smart guns are going to save lives,” says Stephen Teret, a gun expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “They’re not going to save all lives, but why wouldn’t we want to make guns as safe a consumer product as possible?” David Hemenway, a public health expert at Harvard, says that the way forward is for police departments or the military to buy smart guns, creating a market and proving they work....
Smart guns aren’t a panacea. But when even a 17yearold kid can come up with a safer gun, why should the gun lobby be so hostile to the option of purchasing one? Something is amiss when we protect our children from toys that they might swallow, but not from firearms. So Veronica Rutledge is dead, and her son will grow up with the knowledge that he killed her — and we all bear some responsibility when we don’t even try to reduce the carnage.
Among other potential benefits, I think a sophisticated commitment by gun rights advocated to smart gun technologies could in some ways expand gun rights to people now too often denied their rights by overly broad federal firearm restrictions.
Right now, for example, anyone convicted of any felony is forever criminally precluded from ever even possessing a firearm. In a world with more technologically sophisticated guns, some kind of microchip might be installed in certain hunting rifles so that they only work at designated times in designated areas and perhaps then persons guilty of nonviolent felonies could be exempted from broad felon-in-possession prohibitions in order to be able to use these kinds of guns for sport. Or, perhaps technology might allow all persons after completing their formal punishment to still be able to exercise their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms: ex-cons might be permitted only access to smart guns with GPS tracking/reporting technology (something comparable to the internet tracking/screening software now regularly required to be on sex offenders' computers) so that authorities can regularly follow when and how former felons are exercising their gun rights.
A few recent and older related posts:
- Could latest tragic mass shooting prompt renewed consideration of "smart gun" technologies?
- "Smart Gun Technology Could Have Blocked Adam Lanza"
- Sentencing "highlights" in President Obama's new gun control push
- Technology, smart guns, GPS tracking and a better Second Amendment
- More on smart guns, dumb technologies and market realities
- Interesting developments in "smart gun" discussions and debate
- "Can ‘Smart Gun’ Technology Change the Stalemate Over Gun Violence?"
Sunday, November 16, 2014
"The Quiet Army: Felon Firearms Rights Restoration in the Fourth Circuit"
The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Robert Luther III now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This article discusses the restoration of firearm rights for felons and specifically addresses the methods by which individuals convicted of felonies under state law may be relieved of collateral federal firearms disabilities in the Fourth Circuit, with a particular emphasis on the practice in Virginia. It concludes by calling on the Fourth Circuit to make clear in an appropriate case that “a defendant’s ‘civil rights’ have been restored under state law for purposes of 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) if the state has also restored the defendant’s right to possess firearms.”
Due to the Supreme Court of Virginia's interpretation of the Virginia Constitution in Gallagher v. Commonwealth, which concluded that the governor lacked the authority to restore firearm rights and that only the state trial court could do so, the Fourth Circuit’s failure to construe 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) as suggested will have the unintended and disparate effect of failing to relieve all state-convicted felons in Virginia from their collateral federal firearm disabilities. To read 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) not to remove a federal firearms disability when the felon has received the unrestricted restoration of his firearm rights by a Virginia trial court would yield a perverse result because the purpose of this statute was to redirect the restoration process to the states.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
Author John Grisham says "we've gone nuts with this incarceration" of child porn downloaders
One of my (many) wonderful students alerted me to this notable UK press piece reporting on an interview with famous law author John Grisham who had some interesting (and likely-to-be-controversial) comments about tough sentencing for those who download child porn. The article is headlined "John Grisham: men who watch child porn are not all paedophiles," and here are excerpts:
America is wrongly jailing far too many people for viewing child pornography, the best-selling legal novelist John Grisham has told The Telegraph in a wide-ranging attack on the US judicial system and the country's sky-high prison rates. Mr Grisham, 59, argued America's judges had "gone crazy" over the past 30 years, locking up far too many people, from white collar criminals like the businesswoman Martha Stewart, to black teenagers on minor drugs charges and — he added — those who had viewed child porn online.
"We have prisons now filled with guys my age. Sixty-year-old white men in prison who've never harmed anybody, would never touch a child," he said in an exclusive interview to promote his latest novel Gray Mountain which is published next week. "But they got online one night and started surfing around, probably had too much to drink or whatever, and pushed the wrong buttons, went too far and got into child porn."
The author of legal thrillers such as The Firm and A Time to Kill who has sold more than 275m books during his 25-year career, cited the case of a "good buddy from law school" who was caught up in a Canadian child porn sting operation a decade ago as an example of excessive sentencing. "His drinking was out of control, and he went to a website. It was labelled 'sixteen year old wannabee hookers or something like that'. And it said '16-year-old girls'. So he went there. Downloaded some stuff — it was 16 year old girls who looked 30.
"He shouldn't ’a done it. It was stupid, but it wasn't 10-year-old boys. He didn't touch anything. And God, a week later there was a knock on the door: ‘FBI!’ and it was sting set up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to catch people — sex offenders — and he went to prison for three years."
"There's so many of them now. There's so many 'sex offenders' — that's what they're called — that they put them in the same prison. Like they're a bunch of perverts, or something; thousands of ’em. We've gone nuts with this incarceration," he added in his loft-office in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Asked about the argument that viewing child pornography fuelled the industry of abuse needed to create the pictures, Mr Grisham said that current sentencing policies failed to draw a distinction between real-world abusers and those who downloaded content, accidentally or otherwise. "I have no sympathy for real paedophiles,” he said, "God, please lock those people up. But so many of these guys do not deserve harsh prison sentences, and that's what they're getting," adding sentencing disparities between blacks and whites was likely to be the subject of his next book.
There are currently some 2.2m people in jail in the US — or more than 750 per 100,000 population — which makes the US by far the heaviest user of prison sentences in the world. By contrast, Britain imprisons just 154 per 100,000 population. However Mr Grisham’s remarks are likely to anger child-rights campaigners that over the past decade have successfully lobbied the US Congress to demand tougher sentences for those who access child pornography online.
Since 2004 average sentences for those who possess — but do not produce — child pornography have nearly doubled in the US, from 54 months in 2004 to 95 months in 2010, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. However the issue of sex-offender sentencing has sparked some debate in the US legal community after it emerged that in some cases those who viewed child porn online were at risk of receiving harsher sentences than those who committed physical acts against children.
A provocative article in the libertarian magazine Reason headlined "Looking v Touching" argued last February that something was "seriously wrong with a justice system in which people who look at images of child rape can be punished more severely than people who rape children". And in January this year the US Supreme Court was unable to resolve a debate over whether a man who viewed images of a child rape should be as liable to pay the same financial compensation to the victim as the original perpetrator of the crime.
UPDATE: As I expected, John Grisham's child porn sentencing comments has stirred controversy and he has already issued a formal apology. This CNN story provides the basics of the early aftermath:
Those comments and the nature in which Grisham discussed the very serious issue of child pornography incited a flood of hurt, disappointed and angry reactions from fans.
"The day that you came out in an interview and said that watchers of child porn get too stiff of a penalty for it (you said 10 years was too much) makes you someone that I cannot support nor no longer want to read," a reader named Kendra Benefield Lausman shared on Grisham's Facebook page; another posted that she's taken her entire Grisham library to her "burn barrel" with the intent to set the books on fire.
"How do you think child porn is made?" a poster named John Kelly asked on Grisham's page. "Someone is still getting hurt you imbecile. I'm sad to say that I will never purchase, nor consume, one of your books ever again. I am disgusted."
After the uproar began, Grisham issued an apology.
"Anyone who harms a child for profit or pleasure, or who in any way participates in child pornography -- online or otherwise -- should be punished to the fullest extent of the law," the author said in a statement. "My comments made two days ago during an interview with the British newspaper The Telegraph were in no way intended to show sympathy for those convicted of sex crimes, especially the sexual molestation of children. I can think of nothing more despicable. I regret having made these comments, and apologize to all."
That may not be enough for some of his former followers. "You clearly said in the interview that people (like your drunk friend) who look at child porn don't deserve severe punishment," Facebook user Raylene Jolly Wheeler posted in response to Grisham. "Not sure how you can backtrack that statement."
Monday, September 29, 2014
District Court embraces as-applied Second Amendment limit on federal felon-in-possession prohibtion
As long-time readers know, ever since the Supreme Court's Second Amendment Heller ruling, I have long thought federal criminal law's threat of severe sentences on any and all felons in possession of any and all firearms is constitutionally questionable. Now, thanks to this post by Eugene at The Volokh Conspiracy, I see that one federal district court has finally held that there are as-applied Second Amendment problems with the federal felon-in-possession criminal statute.
The notable Second Amendment ruling comes in Binderup v. Holder, No. 13-cv-06750 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 25, 2014) (available here). Interestingly (and perhaps not surprisingly), Binderup is a civil rights suit brought by a relatively sympathetic individual with a minor criminal past, not a case involving a federal criminal defendant claiming the Second Amendment precludes his prosecution. And here are excerpts from the start and end of the lengthy opinion:
As further discussed below, plaintiff distinguishes himself from those individuals traditionally disarmed as the result of prior criminal conduct and demonstrates that he poses no greater threat of future violent criminal activity than the average law-abiding citizen. Therefore, he prevails on his as-applied challenges to § 922(g)(1) on Second-Amendment grounds under the framework for such claims set forth by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in United States v. Barton, 633 F.3d 168 (3d Cir. 2011)....
Because plaintiff’s statutory claim fails, I reach his alternative constitutional claim asserted in Count Two. For the reasons expressed above, I conclude that plaintiff has demonstrated that, despite his prior criminal conviction which brings him within scope of § 922(g)(1)’s firearm prohibition, he poses no greater risk of future violent conduct than the average law-abiding citizen.
Therefore, application of § 922(g)(1) to him violates the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution under the framework set for the by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in United States v. Barton, 633 F.3d 168 (3d Cir. 2011). Accordingly, plaintiff is, and defendants are not, entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff’s as-applied constitutional challenge asserted in Count Two of the Complaint.
It now will be real interesting to see if the feds will appeal this ruling to the Third Circuit or instead just leave it be.
Monday, August 25, 2014
Is Chicago now providing more support for the claim that more guns means less crime?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Washington Times article (hat tip: C&C), which carries the headline "Chicago crime rate drops as concealed carry applications surge; City sees fewer homicides, robberies, burglaries, car thefts as Illinois residents take arms." Here are excerpts:
Since Illinois started granting concealed carry permits this year, the number of robberies that have led to arrests in Chicago has declined 20 percent from last year, according to police department statistics. Reports of burglary and motor vehicle theft are down 20 percent and 26 percent, respectively. In the first quarter, the city’s homicide rate was at a 56-year low.
“It isn’t any coincidence crime rates started to go down when concealed carry was permitted. Just the idea that the criminals don’t know who’s armed and who isn’t has a deterrence effect,” said Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association. “The police department hasn’t changed a single tactic — they haven’t announced a shift in policy or of course — and yet you have these incredible numbers.”
As of July 29 the state had 83,183 applications for concealed carry and had issued 68,549 licenses. By the end of the year, Mr. Pearson estimates, 100,000 Illinois citizens will be packing. When Illinois began processing requests in January, gun training and shooting classes — which are required for the application — were filling up before the rifle association was able to schedule them, Mr. Pearson said.
The Chicago Police Department has credited better police work as a reason for the lower crime rates this year. Police Superintendent Garry F. McCarthy noted the confiscation of more than 1,300 illegal guns in the first three months of the year, better police training and “intelligent policing strategies.” The Chicago Police Department didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Washington Times.
However, the impact of concealed carry can’t be dismissed. Instead of creating more crimes, which many gun control advocates warn, increased concealed carry rates have coincided with lower rates of crime.
A July study by the Crime Prevention Research Center found that 11.1 million Americans have permits to carry concealed weapons, a 147 percent increase from 4.5 million seven years ago. Meanwhile, homicide and other violent crime rates have dropped by 22 percent.
“There’s a lot of academic research that’s been done on this, and if you look at the peer-reviewed studies, the bottom line is a large majority find a benefit of concealed carry on crime rates — and, at worst, there’s no cost,” said John Lott Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center based in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. “You can deter criminals with longer prison sentences and penalties, but arming people with the right to defend themselves with a gun is also a deterrence.”
I know that all the research concerning relationships between gun laws and crime are controversial, and I am certain that these recent Chicago experience will not come close to resolving these on-going debates. Still, whatever might account for the good crime news out of Chicago, I hope everyone is inclined to celebrate the reality of greater personal liberty and less crime in the Windy City.
Thursday, June 26, 2014
Could McCullen's First Amendment scrutiny impact (and strengthen) Second Amendment claims?
I am not a First Amendment expert, and thus I cannot expertly assess all the Justices' First Amendment work today in the SCOTUS abortion buffer-zone ruling in McCullen v. Coakley (available here). But a quick review of the Chief Justice's majority opinion revealed that the Court struck down a Massachusetts regulatory law justified on public safety grounds using intermediate scrutiny because the state had "not shown that it seriously undertook to address the problem with less intrusive tools readily available to it [nor] that it considered different methods that other jurisdictions have found effective." Id. slip op. at 27. As the title to this post suggests, I wonder if court analysis of Second Amendment challenges to federal, state and local gun regulations might be impacted by the Supreme Court's First Amendment analysis in McCullen.
As of this writing, it is not yet even clear what level of scrutiny courts should be applying to Second Amendment challenges to federal, state and local gun regulations. But in many settings, many courts have adopted the same basic intermediate analysis that led to Massachusetts' law being found unconstitutional in McCullen. Of particular interest, therefore, is the language quoted above, in which the Chief Justice assails Massachusetts for failing to seriously explore how to "address the [public safety] problem with less intrusive tools" and to consider "different methods that other jurisdictions have found effective." I suspect many gun rights advocates, when pressing challenges to federal, state and local gun regulations defended on the basis of public safety, will be quick to quote this language and to assert that a jurisdiction's gun restrictions should be struck down absent evidence the state seriously explored "less intrusive" restrictions and/or considered "different [gun laws] that other jurisdictions have found effective."
Friday, May 09, 2014
Applying strict scrutiny, Louisiana Supreme Court upholds facial constitutionality of criminalizing gun possession with illegal drug possession
Thanks to this post by Eugene Volokh, I see that the Louisiana Supreme Court issued an interesting and important unanimous decision earlier this week upholding a state gun crime statute against a facial state constitutional challenge. Here is how this opinion in Louisiana v. Webb, No. 2013-KK-1681 (La. May 7, 2014) (available here), starts and ends:
We granted a writ to determine whether a recent constitutional amendment involving a fundamental right to bear arms found in La. Const. art. I, § 11 renders a criminal statute related to the possession of a firearm while possessing illegal drugs, facially unconstitutional.
According to the defendant, because the right to bear arms has been recently enshrined as a fundamental constitutional right, notwithstanding the fact the defendant was allegedly carrying illegal drugs while in possession of a firearm, La. R.S. 14:95(E) is facially unconstitutional. Essentially, the defendant argues that, even assuming he possessed illegal drugs, because La. R.S. 14:95(E) deals not only with illegal drugs but with firearms, the firearm aspect of the statute cannot survive strict judicial scrutiny, and the entire statute must be declared unconstitutional.
We disagree. Nothing in the recent constitutional amendment regarding firearms requires dismissal of the criminal charges against the defendant for carrying a firearm while in possession of illegal drugs.....
To promote public safety by curtailing drug trafficking, the state of Louisiana has a compelling interest in enhancing the penalty for illegal drug possession when a person engages in that illegal conduct with the simultaneous while in possession of a firearm. Undeniably, the right to keep and bear a firearm is a fundamental right in Louisiana. However, when a person is engaged in the unlawful conduct of possessing illegal drugs, the person’s own unlawful actions have “qualified his right” to engage in what would otherwise be the exercise of that fundamental right. See Helms, 452 U.S. at 420 (indicating “appellee’s own misconduct [in abandoning his child] had qualified his right to travel interstate.”).
Earlier, we observed that in amending Article I, § 11 of the constitution, the electorate tasked this court with applying a very technical legal test to answer a very practical question. From all aspects, we have found the technical points of the law constitutionally allow the state to make it a crime to possess an illegal drug with a firearm. We can now, therefore, answer this practical question: Is the act of possessing a firearm and illegal drugs so essential to the liberties citizens ought to be able to enjoy in an orderly society that a law to the contrary is unconstitutional? “We have held that the function of the court in construing constitutional provisions is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the people who adopted it. It is the understanding that can reasonably be ascribed to the voting population as a whole that controls.” Caddo-Shreveport Sales and Use Tax Com'n v. Office of Motor Vehicles, Dept. of Public Safety and Corrections of State, 97-2233 (La. 4/14/98), 710 So.2d 776, 780. Nothing in Article I, § 11 of the constitution informs us that the electorate, whose intent is ultimately the intent that governs, believed that possessing firearms with illegal drugs meets the electorate’s expectations of a society whose hallmark is ordered liberty.
We, therefore, affirm the ruling of the district court, finding La. R.S. 14:95(E) is not unconstitutional, and that nothing in Article I, § 11 of the constitution requires the charges against the defendant to be quashed. This case is remanded to the district court for further proceedings.
Connecticut debate spotlights how fights over death penalty can impede other needed reforms
Long time readers know that one of my enduring frustrations with debates over the fate of death penalty concerns how this debate can sometimes get in the way of other important criminal justice work. A notable new example of this dynamic was on display this week in Connecticut, as evidenced by this local article headlined "Juvenile Sentencing Bill Fails Second Year In A Row." Here are the basic details:
A barrage of amendments, a planned Republican filibuster over the merits of reviving the death penalty, and recent charges against a Milford teen in the fatal stabbing of a classmate scuttled a criminal justice bill on the last day of the 2014 session.
The bill would have offered inmates serving long prison sentences for crimes they committed at a young age a chance at freedom. The measure was crafted in response to two U.S. Supreme Court rulings, in 2010 and 2012. The court held that life sentences for offenders younger than 18 are unconstitutional and that juvenile offenders must be given a "meaningful opportunity" to seek release.
The legislation cleared the House of Representatives on a broad and bipartisan vote in early April. But for the second year in a row, it failed to come up in the Senate by midnight Wednesday, when the General Assembly adjourned. Republicans signaled to Democratic leaders that they were going to block the bill by filing 22 amendments, including one to reinstate the death penalty in Connecticut for convicted terrorists and another to eliminate a program that aims to rehabilitate prisoners by offering them credit toward early release....
Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams said there were enough votes to pass the measure. But, facing Republican opposition and wanting to avoid votes on controversial issues like the death penalty, Williams opted not to bring the bill up....
The proposed bill was based on recommendations by the non-partisan Connecticut Sentencing Commission. It would have permitted prisoners who committed crimes as teenagers and are serving prison terms of 20 years or less to be eligible for a sentence review after they had served 60 percent of their time. Inmates serving 50 years or more could receive that "second look" 30 years into their sentences. The proposal would not have guaranteed freedom for the inmates but would have given them the opportunity to argue their case at a special parole hearing with highly restrictive criteria.
"We're disappointed with what happened in the Senate," said David M. Borden, a retired state Supreme Court justice who chairs the Sentencing Commission, the panel charged with reviewing criminal justice policy and proposing legislation. The commission's members include prosecutors, defense attorneys, police, corrections officials and the state victims advocate. "When you look at the bill dispassionately and look at the facts dispassionately and clear away all the underbrush of things that don't have anything to do with it, it's a very good bill," Borden said Thursday. "To the extent politics got in the way, well, we live in the real world ... we'll take the consequences."
The commission will meet in June and determine whether it will push for the measure again in 2015. "I don't think there's going to be a strong sentiment for giving up this fight," Borden said. He said 70 inmates in Connecticut already have filed cases seeking revisions in their sentences, based on the two Supreme Court rulings. "This bill would have set down reasonable parameters for how these cases should be handled," Borden said.
In the absence of legislation setting a legal framework, the decision of how to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings likely will be left to state courts, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Thursday. "Don't be surprised if it goes to court," Malloy said. The courts "will do what the [legislature] should have done and perhaps do more."
May 9, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Sunday, May 04, 2014
Should those who really favor gun rights protest the right to sell and own a safer gun?
The question in the title of this post is a little of my usual topics, but I need to vent a bit about this discouraging story in the Washington Post highlighting that some folks who support gun rights are against the idea of using technology to produce a safer gun. The article is headlined "Maryland dealer, under pressure from gun-rights activists, drops plan to sell smart gun," and here are excerpts:
A Rockville gun store owner who said he would sell the nation’s first smart gun — even after a California gun store removed the weapon from its shelves to placate angry gun-rights activists — backed down late Thursday night after enduring a day of protests and death threats.
Andy Raymond, the co-owner of Engage Armament, a store known for its custom assault rifles, had said earlier this week that offering the Armatix iP1 handgun was a “really tough decision” after what happened to the Oak Tree Gun Club near Los Angeles. Oak Tree was lambasted by gun owners and National Rifle Association members who fear the new technology will be mandated and will encroach on Second Amendment rights.
Electronic chips in the gun communicate with a watch that can be bought separately. The gun cannot be fired without the watch....
[A]fter hundreds of protests on his store’s Facebook page and online forums — a repeat of what Oak Tree faced — Raymond released a long video on the Facebook page saying he had received death threats and would not sell the gun. He apologized and took responsibility for the decision. He had sold none of the smart guns and would not, he said.
Earlier, Raymond had said he’s on the “right-wing vanguard of gun rights” but is vehemently opposed to gun rights activists arguing against the idea of a smart gun — or any gun. “To me that is so fricking hypocritical,” Raymond had said. “That’s the antithesis of everything that we pro-gun, pro-Second Amendment people should be. You are not supposed to say a gun should be prohibited. Then you are being no different than the anti-gun people who say an AR-15 should be prohibited.”...
Besides reliability in the face of danger, the opponents’ most pressing fear is that sales of the iP1 will trigger a New Jersey law mandating that all handguns in the state be personalized within three years of a smart gun’s going on sale anywhere in the United States. Similar proposals have been introduced in California and Congress.
Raymond said he didn’t want the law to kick in and didn’t think he’d be responsible if it did, because Oak Tree already had the gun for sale. He said the law was not his problem or Armatix’s. “This is not Armatix screwing over the people of New Jersey,” he said. “It’s the legislature screwing over the people of New Jersey. Bushmaster didn’t screw over the people of Newtown. Adam Lanza did. It’s just disgusting to me to see pro-gun people acting like anti-gunners. What is free if it’s not choice?”...
The demand for smart guns is subject to debate. Gun rights advocates, including the National Shooting Sports Foundation, say there seems to be little desire for such weapons at the moment. They point to a survey the group commissioned last year showing that 14 percent of Americans would consider buying a smart gun. “We think the market should decide,” Lawrence G. Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, told The Post this year.
Gun-control advocates believe that smart guns could reduce gun violence, suicides and accidental shootings. A dream of researchers and politicians for decades, the idea found renewed interest within the federal government following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. A group of Silicon Valley investors led by Ron Conway recently launched a $1 million contest to encourage smart-gun technology.
Numerous approaches are in development. Armatix uses RFID chips like those in anti-theft tags attached to clothing in stores. Other companies use a ring to enable the gun’s operation. Grips that recognize an owner are being tested, as are sensors to detect fingerprints and voices. The iP1, developed over a period of years by Armatix, a German firm, is the first smart gun to be marketed in the United States.
Increasing gun ownership is what Raymond said he was after in planning to sell the iP1. “If this gets more people, especially those on the fence, to go out and enjoy their Second Amendment freedoms, to go sport shooting and realize how much fun it is, then I am all for it,” Raymond said before changing his mind. “This is really not a bad thing.”
Regular readers know that I am both a supporter of the Second Amendment and of smart gun technology. If developed effectively, smart guns ought be be able to increase gun rights and reduce gun violence: e.g., smart gun technology might be a way to allow a former non-violent felon, who now is prohibited by federal law from possessing any firearm, to own a gun for self-protection that can only operate from his home. And smart gun technology ought to be able to provide effective digital evidence of gun use (and misuse) to be used by police and other law enforcement officials to investigate and prevent crime.
I understand the fears that some gun rights advocates may have about possible "misuse" of smart gun technology, but these folks should realize that these kinds of concerns about the misuse of a good technology (i.e., guns) are exactly what motivates gun control advocates. Moreover, as smart gun technology improves, I suspect it is only a matter of time before the real issue is how these guns are made and sold, not whether they are available.
A few recent and older related posts:
- Could latest tragic mass shooting prompt renewed consideration of "smart gun" technologies?
- "Smart Gun Technology Could Have Blocked Adam Lanza"
- Sentencing "highlights" in President Obama's new gun control push
- Technology, smart guns, GPS tracking and a better Second Amendment
- More on smart guns, dumb technologies and market realities
- Interesting developments in "smart gun" discussions and debate
- "Can ‘Smart Gun’ Technology Change the Stalemate Over Gun Violence?"
Thursday, May 01, 2014
Two interestingly different rulings on two of the even Amendments from the Fourth Circuit
A helpful reader aleerted me to the fact that the Fourth Circuit issued some interesting criminal justice rulings yesterday. US v. Carter, No. 12-5045 (4th Cir. Apr. 30, 2014) (available here), concerns a notable Second Amendment claim and gets started this way:
Following his conviction and sentencing for possessing two firearms while being an unlawful user of and addicted to a controlled substance (marijuana), in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3), Benjamin Carter appealed, contending that § 922(g)(3) infringed on his right to bear arms, in violation of the Second Amendment. We vacated the judgment and remanded the case to the district court to allow the government to substantiate the fit between § 922(g)(3) and the government’s important interest in protecting the community from gun violence. See United States v. Carter (“Carter I”), 669 F.3d 411 (4th Cir. 2012). After taking evidence from both sides, the district court held that the government had carried its burden in justifying the regulation of guns under § 922(g)(3), and Carter filed this second appeal.
Because we agree with the district court that the government adequately demonstrated a reasonable fit between its important interest in protecting the community from gun violence and § 922(g)(3), which disarms unlawful drug users and addicts, we now affirm.
US v. Ramirez-Castillo, No. 13-4158 (4th Cir. Apr. 30, 2014) (available here), concerns a notable Sixth Amendment claim and gets started this way:
In this appeal, we review the propriety of a prison sentence imposed subsequent to a jury trial in which the jury made two specific factual findings but never returned a guilty verdict. Saul Ramirez-Castillo (“Appellant”) challenges his conviction and sentence for possession of a prohibited object by a federal inmate. On December 14, 2011, Appellant was charged in a single-count indictment with “knowingly possess[ing] prohibited objects, that is, two homemade weapons,” while an inmate at a Federal Correctional Institute in Estill, South Carolina (“FCI Estill”), in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1791(a)(2), (b)(3), and (c). A jury trial was held on September 25, 2012. At the conclusion of the evidence, the district court charged the jury with determining: (1) whether the first object at issue was a “weapon”; and (2) whether the second object at issue was possessed by Appellant. The jury answered “yes” to each question, but was never asked to determine whether Appellant was “guilty” or “not guilty” of the charged offense. Although the jury never returned a guilty verdict, the parties proceeded to sentencing on February 21, 2013. Appellant was sentenced to 33 months’ imprisonment, to be served consecutively to his prior undischarged term of imprisonment of 66 months.
Because we conclude the district court violated Appellant’s right to have a jury determine his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, we vacate Appellant’s conviction and sentence, and we remand the case to the district court.
I cannot help but find a bit of functional irony in the reality of the Carter and Ramirez-Castillo results: an illegal alien possessing weapons in federal prison prevails on his Sixth Amendment jury rights claim, while an American marijuana user in his home loses in his Second Amendment gun rights claim.
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Without much to say about the Second Amendment, SCOTUS gives broad reading to federal firearm possession crime
In a unanimous ruling (with two separate concurrences), the Supreme Court this morning interpreted broadly in US v. Castleman, No. 12–1371 (S. Ct. Mar. 26, 2014) (available here) the federal crime set forth in, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9), prohibiting anyone who has been convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from ever possessing a gun. Here is how the main opinion in Castleman, authored by Justice Sotomayor, gets started and its final two paragraphs:
Recognizing that “[f]irearms and domestic strife are a potentially deadly combination,” United States v. Hayes, 555 U. S. 415, 427 (2009), Congress forbade the possession of firearms by anyone convicted of “a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” 18 U. S. C. §922(g)(9). The respondent, James Alvin Castleman, pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor offense of having “intentionally or knowingly cause[d] bodily injury to” the mother of his child. App. 27. The question before us is whether this conviction qualifies as “a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” We hold that it does....
Finally, Castleman suggests — in a single paragraph — that we should read §922(g)(9) narrowly because it implicates his constitutional right to keep and bear arms. But Castleman has not challenged the constitutionality of §922(g)(9), either on its face or as applied to him, and the meaning of the statute is sufficiently clear that we need not indulge Castleman’s cursory nod to constitutional avoidance concerns.
Castleman’s conviction for having “intentionally or knowingly cause[d] bodily injury to” the mother of his child qualifies as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is therefore reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Notably, there are separate concurrences by Justice Scalia (author of the landmark Heller Second Amendment ruling) and Justice Alito (author of the follow-up McDonald ruling describing gun possession as a fundamental right). But neither Justice seems even a bit concerned by a broadened interpretation of a federal statute that makes forever criminal the possession of a firearm by millions of persons who have been convicted of only a certain type of misdemeanor.
For many of the reasons set forth in the various Castleman opinions (which I need to read carefully before commenting further), I think the Justices are on solid ground with statutory interpretation in this case. But what I think makes the case truly interesting and telling is what short shrift is given to the supposedly fundamental rights protected by the Second Amendment even by all five Justices who have previous spoke grandly about these rights in Heller and McDonald.
Thursday, January 09, 2014
"Are there no limits on Second Amendment rights?"
The title of this post is the title of this new entry by Lyle Denniston at the "Constitution Daily" blog of the National Constitution Center. After I reprint some excerpts, I will explain why I see more limits on Second Amendment rights than any other right in the Constitution:
In only one place in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights is there a provision that flatly bars the government from regulating one of the protected rights. That is in the First Amendment, declaring that “Congress shall make no law respecting” the rights listed in that Amendment. The “right to keep and bear arms” is not one of those rights; it is contained in the Second Amendment.
The Second Amendment’s text, of course, does say that the right it protects “shall not be infringed.” Is that the same thing as saying that government may pass “no law respecting” gun rights?...
The only place that Americans can look for a binding interpretation of what the Constitution’s words mean – other than to the people acting through the amendment process to make a new constitutional declaration – are the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court....
Over the time since 1791, when the Bill if Rights was ratified, the Supreme Court has given its blessing to an entire governing edifice that regulates First Amendment rights: the laws of libel and defamation, limits on publishing secret military strategy, regulation of “obscene” and “indecent” expression, and limits on “hate speech.” Famously, the court has said that one has no right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Even the right to worship freely sometimes is curbed by laws that regulate conduct that has religious meaning.
In contrast to the First Amendment, there is very little constitutional history about the meaning of the Second Amendment. In fact, until just five years ago, the “right to keep and bear arms” was not generally understand as a personal right to have a gun, even for self-defense. It was only in 2008 that the Supreme Court declared that such a personal right does, indeed, exist.
That decision, in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, is – so far – the most important decision the court has ever issued on the scope of the “right to keep and bear arms.” But in that very ruling, the Court said explicitly: “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.” It went on to say just as clearly that it was not barring the government from imposing “reasonable regulation” on that right.
Is a “reasonable regulation” of gun rights, then, an “infringement” on those rights? If the word “infringement” means to encroach on something, as one does when one “trespasses” on someone else’s private property, that does not support the idea that Second Amendment rights are absolutes. Government can “trespass” on private property to put out a fire, for example....
The Supreme Court, of course, could re-enter into that national debate if it felt a need to clarify just what kind of “regulation” of gun rights is allowed without being found to violate the Second Amendment. Up to now, however, the Court does not seem to sense that need. It has issued only one significant gun rights decision since the 2008 ruling, and that 2010 decision in McDonald v. Chicago expanded the personal right to a gun to exist at the state and local level, as well as at the federal level. The court did not go further to explain what it would allow in gun regulation by state and local governments.
It has been asked, every year since then, to take on a variety of new cases, to answer some of the lingering questions: does the personal right to have a gun extend beyond one’s own home, who can be forbidden to have a gun at all, when can a gun be carried in public in a concealed way, what types of guns or ammunition can be regulated or even banned, what places in a community are too sensitive or too prone to violence to allow guns in them, how can the government trace a gun that has been used in a violent incident, how freely should gun shows be allowed to operate?
However, the Court has resisted giving an answer to any follow-up questions. And what that has meant, in the national conversation over gun rights, is that anyone’s argument about the extent of those rights is just as good as anyone else’s, and neither side needs to listen to the arguments that the other side makes.
As regular readers know, I have long highlighted (and lamented) that so far the Second Amendment has been interpreted by lower courts to mean that, if an American ever does one bad thing once (a felony or certain misdemeanors), she can forever be subject to a criminal convction for exercising Second Amendment rights. I know of no other express right set forth in the Bill of Rights that a person forever forfeits based on a single prior bad act. Thus, from my perspective, the Second Amendment is subject to many more rigid limits than any other constitutional right.
Friday, November 29, 2013
Louisiana Supreme Court at crosshairs of strong gun rights and tough drug laws
As reported in this effective local article, headlined "Court considering second major gun law: La. drug-gun statute latest to face review," the top court in the Pelican State has a lot of interesting legal issues to sort out in the wake of state voters having last year approved by a gun-rights constitutional amendment backed by the National Rifle Association. Here are the particulars:
Amid the growing confusion over whether Louisiana’s litany of gun crimes violates its residents’ turbocharged right to bear arms, the state Supreme Court has decided it will try to settle one of the most consequential questions: Does it remain constitutional to charge a person with a high-grade felony for having a gun at the same time as illegal drugs, no matter what kind of drugs or how much?
Rico Webb, a 22-year-old caught in a car with one marijuana cigar and a gun, points to a state constitutional amendment passed last year, applauded by conservatives and the National Rifle Association, that for the first time in American history declared gun ownership a fundamental right in Louisiana, subject to the same level of judicial scrutiny as free speech and voter equality.
The amendment provoked an avalanche of legal challenges to the state’s major gun-crime laws. At least three judges have declared various criminal statutes unconstitutional. The Louisiana Supreme Court is tasked with sorting out the mess.
The high court already is considering the statute that forbids certain felons from possessing firearms. It heard oral arguments last month, and its decision is pending. In the meantime, the court agreed on Friday to take up Webb’s challenge to the law that punishes the possession of guns and drugs with five to 10 years in prison without the possibility of parole....The constitutional amendment sailed through the Legislature last year and received overwhelming support from voters at the ballot box. Its proponents, both inside and outside the Legislature, defended the measure as a guarantee of freedom if federal gun protections were to somehow fall.
But critics described it as an unnecessary law that solved no problem. Louisiana already had among the most liberal gun laws in the nation. All the amendment has accomplished, they say, is widespread constitutional chaos that could endanger public safety and waste hundreds of courthouse hours on the taxpayers’ dime.
The measure was pitched by conservative legislators as a state equivalent to the Second Amendment. But in practice, it goes far past the protections offered by the U.S. Constitution. The amendment erased language in the law that allowed the Legislature to prohibit carrying a concealed weapon and specified that, for the first time anywhere in the nation, gun laws would be subject to a “strict scrutiny” test, the highest level of judicial review.
“What the Legislature did is it took discretion away from itself,” said Raymond Diamond, a LSU law professor and Second Amendment scholar. “This pro-gun Legislature voted to bind itself, and future Legislatures that might not be so pro-gun, from undertaking gun control. It has similarly binded local communities in ways that right now we really don’t understand.” He has described the amendment as “a can of worms.”
It pushed the Louisiana Supreme Court to become the first in America to analyze criminal gun statutes using a strict scrutiny test. That test presumes that every person has the right to be armed. Any law that seeks to infringe that right must pass a grueling legal test that kills more than two-third of the laws that come up against it. The state must show that the law serves a compelling government interest, and that it is so narrowly defined that there is no less restrictive way of achieving that interest.
The arguments against the current statutes are similar, in that they equally dole out “heavy-handed penalties” to vast groups of people. The drug statute treats people caught with small amounts of marijuana the same as those with large amounts of more serious drugs. The felon-with-a-gun statute equates burglars with murderers. It includes a list of 150 felony offenses, characterized as drug or violence crimes, and says that anyone convicted of any of them is barred from possessing a firearm for 10 years after being released from prison.
The state supports that law by arguing that those with a demonstrated capacity to break the law are more dangerous when armed. Its position on the drugs-and-gun statute is the same: Drugs beget violence and guns make volatile situations deadly.
But Webb’s attorney, New Orleans public defender Colin Reingold, argues that the state cannot prove, under a strict-scrutiny test, that a single marijuana blunt makes him more dangerous when armed than anyone else, particularly since the possession of alcohol and guns is not equally restricted. “The true danger of a firearm comes not from the manner in which its owner keeps or bears it, but rather from how the citizen uses the weapon,” Reingold wrote in his appeal to the Supreme Court.
Webb, who has no criminal record, was arrested on Sept. 10, 2012, when police pulled over his girlfriend for having a broken taillight. He confessed to police that he had the blunt in his backpack and said the gun on the floorboard was his, too. The gun was legal and the marijuana alone would have amounted to a misdemeanor, prosecuted in Municipal Court and typically punished with a fine and probation. But combined, the gun and pot became a felony with a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of 10 years, without the possibility of parole.
Webb appealed his charge to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which announced on Friday it would hear the case. Over the years, the courts will have to sort out which of the 80 other gun crimes on Louisiana law books remain constitutional under the new amendment.
The state has become an experiment. “This is an exciting time because there is some risk that some of the laws will be declared unconstitutional,” Diamond said. “Everybody’s very interested to see what the court’s going to do with it.”
Various prior Second Amendment and gun policy posts:
- Big (ugly?) NY Times report on felons getting back gun rights
- "Should pardoned felons have gun rights?"
- North Carolina Supreme Court finds state constitutional right for some felons to bear arms
- Notable new Alaska appellate decision on denying gun rights to non-violent felons
- "Convicted Felon Sues State Over Right To Bear Arms"
- Fourth Circuit suggests people must be "responsible" to get full Second Amendment protection
- Might restoration of felon gun rights actually reduce recidivism?
- Are Scooter Libby and Martha Stewart and millions of others not among the Constitution's "people"?
- "Why Can’t Martha Stewart Have a Gun?"
- Should NRA care more about gun rights for non-violent felons or those accused of domestic violence?
- "Is the Supreme Court only willing to work at the fringes of the Second Amendment?"
- Senator Rand Paul talking up restoring voting and gun rights for felons, as well as sentencing reform
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Latest USSC publication highlights remarkable "disparities"(?) in federal FIP sentences
I am pleased to see that the US Sentencing Commission now has up on its website another terrific new data document in its series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications. (Regular readers may recall from this prior post that the USSC describes these publications as a way to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")
As I have said before, I think this series is a very valuable new innovation coming from the USSC, and I have already learned a lot and benefited greatly from these publications. This latest document, which "presents data on offenses under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), commonly called 'felon in possession' cases," includes these notable data details:
In fiscal year 2012, 5,768 offenders were convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)....
One-quarter (25.2%) of offenders convicted under section 922(g) were assigned to the highest criminal history category (Category VI). The proportion of these offenders in other Criminal History Categories was as follows: 11.7% of these offenders were in Category I; 9.3% were in Category II; 21.1% were in Category III; 18.9% were in Category IV; and 13.8% were in Category V.
10.3% were sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) (18 U.S.C.§ 924(e))...
The average sentence length for all section 922(g) offenders was 75 months; however, one-quarter of these offenders had an average sentence of 24 months or less while one-quarter had an average sentence of 96 months or more.
The average sentence length for offenders convicted of violating only section 922(g) and who were sentenced under ACCA was 180 months.
The average sentence length for offenders convicted of violating only section 922(g) but who were not sentenced under ACCA was 46 months.
The title of this post has the term "disparities" in quotes followed by a question mark because these basic sentencing data about a pretty basic federal crime could be interpreted in many disparate ways. Given that all the offenders sentenced for FIP likely were engaged in pretty similar conduct (simple possession of a firearm) and all of them, by definition, had to have a serious criminal record in order to be subject to federal prosecution, one might see lots of unwarranted disparity among this offender group given the extraordinary outcome variations documented here -- in FY2012, over 10% of FIP offenders are getting sent away for an average of 15 years, but another 25% are going away for only 8 years, while another 25% are going away for only 2 years.
Then again, given the apparently varied criminal histories of the FIP offenders, the sentencing variation here surely reflects various (reasoned and reasonable?) judicial assessments of different levels of recidivism risk for different FIP offenders. I certainly hope that the those being sentenced to decades behind bars for gun possession are generally those with very long rap sheets, and that those getting sent away only for a couple years are those with much more limited criminal histories.
Finally, in addition to noting the profound significance that past crimes clearly have on current sentencing in FIP cases, I must note that it is these past crimes that itself serves to convert the behavior here in to a federal crime. Indeed, if one takes the Second Amendment very seriously (as I do), the actual "offense behavior" in these cases might often be subject to significant protection as the exercise of a fundamental constitutional right unless and until the person has a disqualifying criminal past. Proof yet again that the past, at least when it comes to criminal sentencing and constitutional rights, is often ever-present.
November 19, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Monday, November 18, 2013
Ninth Circuit rejects Second Amendment attack on federal crime of gun possession by certain misdemeanants
In a lengthy panel opinion coupled with a notable concurrence, the Ninth Circuit today in US v. Chovan, No. 11-50107 (9th Cir. Nov. 18, 2013) (available here), rejects a defendant's Second Amendment challenge to the federal statute criminalizing gun possession by persons convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors. Here is how the majority opinion starts:
Following the entry of a conditional guilty plea, Daniel Chovan appeals the district court’s denial of his motion to dismiss an indictment against him for violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9). Section 922(g)(9) prohibits persons convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from possessing firearms for life. Chovan contends that § 922(g)(9) is unconstitutional both on its face and as applied to him because it violates his Second Amendment right to bear arms. In the alternative, he argues that § 922(g)(9) does not apply to him because his civil rights have been restored within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(33)(B)(ii). We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We reject Chovan’s “civil rights restored” argument, hold that intermediate scrutiny applies to his Second Amendment claim, and uphold § 922(g)(9) under intermediate scrutiny.
In a lengthy concurrence, Judge Bea explains why he thinks strict scrutiny is the right way to scrutinize the federal gun crime at issue here, and his opinion concludes this way:
The Heller opinion did not provide lower courts with explicit guidance on how to analyze challenges to statutes under the Second Amendment. If we are to apply the familiar tiers of scrutiny analysis in Second Amendment cases, instead of a pure textual, historical, and structural analysis, however, history and precedent still dictate a more stringent examination of these issues than the majority allow. Strict scrutiny has become an integral aspect of much of our constitutional jurisprudence. See Fallon, supra, at 1268 (ranking strict scrutiny “among the most important doctrinal elements in constitutional law”). After applying strict scrutiny to § 922(g)(9), I come to the same conclusion as do the majority, and uphold the law. The close look afforded by strict scrutiny, however, ensures that the law truly is narrowly tailored to further a compelling governmental interest, and ensures that the Second Amendment’s contours are drawn by the Constitution, and not by Congress.
November 18, 2013 in Collateral consequences, Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Thursday, October 17, 2013
"Is the Supreme Court only willing to work at the fringes of the Second Amendment?"The question in the title of this post is the main headline of this notable and effective new commentary by Lyle Denniston at the blog of the National Constitution Center. (Hat tip: How Appealing.) Here are excerpts:
The Constitution’s Second Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled five years ago, protects an individual’s personal right to have a gun for self-defense. It has returned to the Second Amendment only once since then, in a decision three years ago extending that personal right across the nation, so that it can be used to challenge state and local gun control laws as well as such laws at the federal level.
Since then, more than a half-dozen test cases on the issue have been filed at the court, and each one has been bypassed. It appears that no one on the court is pushing to return to the issue; it takes four votes on the bench to grant review, and there is no reliable indication that any case has drawn even one vote....
Although lower courts have issued an array of differing and sometimes conflicting decisions (the pattern that usually draws in the Supreme Court), the scope of the Second Amendment right is still in a kind of constitutional limbo. It remained there on Tuesday, when the Justices turned aside an appeal by a Maryland man, Raymond Woollard, who lives near Baltimore. He once had a permit to have a gun that he could carry outside his home, because he had shown he faced a potential threat from a son-in-law who had shown violent tendencies. But when he tried to get the permit renewed, he was turned down, on the premise that he had not proved that he still faced a threat to his safety. The court’s refusal to hear his appeal came quickly, after the Justices’ first fleeting look at the case. That has been the pattern for the past several years....
The message that the Supreme Court has seemed to be sending — at least up until now — is that it is in no hurry to resolve open questions about how far constitutional gun rights extend. It has not even agreed to spell out in a final way the constitutional test that it will apply to judge the validity of any specific gun control law.
As this trend continues, it tends to put an exaggerated emphasis on each new case that reaches the Supreme Court: Will this be the one that will finally get the Justices’ attention; if not, what will it take? Since the Supreme Court is the sole entity to determine the scope of the Second Amendment right (aside from the legislatures that can put together a clarifying constitutional amendment), judges and legislators across the country have to wonder when they will get new constitutional guidance.
Especially because the Supreme Court left so much unclear about the scope and application of the Second Amendment in Heller, and particularly now that these issues have been "percolating" in lower courts for a half-decade, I think it is getting to be past time for the Justices to take up some "Heller application" cases. In this setting, the SCOTUS is starting to seem a bit like too many others decision-makers inside the Beltway: apparently unwilling or unable to make hard decisions about how competing priorities ought to be balanced in the development of Second Amendment jurisprudence, the Justices so far are avoiding making any decisions at all.
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
SCOTUS takes up another federal criminal gun case while dodging bigger Second Amendment contentions
The Supreme Court this morning granted review on a technical federal gun crime issue, but denied review on a Second Amendment case looking to figure out the reach of SCOTUS rulings in Heller and McDonald. Here is the SCOTUSblog summary of these developments:
The Court also granted review ... on the legality under federal law of the owner of a gun selling it to someone else, if the new owner can have a gun legally. That case is Abramski v. United States (12-1493). However, the Court followed its recent pattern of refusing to hear constitutional challenges to gun control laws under the Second Amendment, turning aside a Maryland case seeking to expand the personal right to have a gun beyond the home (Woollard v. Gallagher, 13-42).
Notably, Abramski is the second technical statutory federal gun crime case that the Supreme Court has decided to resolve this Term. Two weeks ago, the Court granted cert in US v. Castleman, which concerns whether a "Tennessee conviction for misdemeanor domestic assault by intentionally or knowingly causing bodily injury to the mother of his child qualifies as a conviction for a 'misdemeanor crime of domestic violence' under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9)."
Based on a too-quick review of the cert briefing in these cases, I doubt that either Abramski or Castleman will result in a major ruling concerning federal criminal law or sentencing. But, especially given the relative dearth of significant sentencing cases on the SCOTUS docket so far, I will keep these cases on my persona watch-list. I think either or both cases could develop into Second Amendment sleepers if some of the briefing or some of the Justices contend that there is more at stake in these cases than just a technical federal statutory crime issue.
Friday, September 20, 2013
NY Times debates "Reconsidering Young Lifers’ Sentences"
The Room for Debate section of the New York Times has this new set of pieces discussing whether all juve murderers should get the retroactive benefit of the Supreme Court's Miller Eighth Amendment ruling. Here is the section's set up:
In the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama that juveniles may never receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole, The Times editorial board has called for courts and legislators to apply this principle regardless of the date of conviction.
Courts in some states agree. Earlier this month, the Louisiana Supreme Court took on this question in the case of Darryl Tate, who was 17 when he robbed two men and killed one of them in 1981.
Should all people in prison for life without parole who committed their crimes before their 18th birthday be eligible for a new sentencing hearing?
Here are the contributions, with links via the commentary titles:
"Give Them Another Chance" by Jody Kent Lavy, Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth
"Judgments Should Remain Intact" by Kent Scheidegger, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation
"The Problem With Retroactivity Rules" by William Baude, Volokh Conspiracy
"It Won’t Be Easy, But It Must Be Done" by R. Daniel Okonkwo, D.C. Lawyers for Youth
"Time to Affirm What We Mean by ‘Juvenile’" by Annie Salsich, Vera Institute of Justice
September 20, 2013 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack