Continental Arms Handun Possession Case Demonstrates that in Criminal Cases, As In Medicine, An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

As an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorneys we often witness people make the big mistake of representing themselves in criminal court. The old adage is, “he who represents himself, has a fool for a client”. Truer words have never been spoken, particularly when dealing with criminal charges

The typical scenario is that someone is arrested and charged in a case that that they view as minor or at least something that they can handle themselves. Sometimes it actually works out and the person gets away with the mistake. Sometimes it blows up in their face immediately and they know it. But sometimes the mistake is latent and the person doesn’t realize how badly he messed up his life until years later. I had a case last week in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County in which my client was charged with Illegal Handgun Possession that fell into this last category. Fortunately, I was able to successfully resolve the current case but not before it cost the defendant far more than it would have cost to resolve the original matter had he contacted me then. And I was unable to undue the original conviction which will continue to cause collateral consequences for my client for many years to come and perhaps for the rest of his life. Here are the facts:

My client is a 49 year former Marine with no prior criminal record. He is an electrician by trade and is an avid outdoorsman and hunter. In 2006, he was involved in a relatively minor domestic incident with his wife of 25 years. An argument between the two allegedly became physical causing only minor injury to his wife. He decided that he would handle the matter himself both for financial reasons and because he believed that since it was his first offense, he would be treated with leniency. He plead guilty and was sentenced to a suspended jail term and probation with domestic violence counseling.

As he walked out of the courthouse, he believed that he had made the right decision in representing himself. After all he was only convicted of a misdemeanor and did not get sent to jail. What he didn’t realize was that the judge to whom he was now on probation had essentially a zero tolerance policy regarding probation violations, meaning that virtually any infraction would result in his incarceration. What he also did not realize was that, although second degree assault is in fact a misdemeanor, it is also classified as a “crime of violence” and carries a maximum penalty of more than 2 years (it carries 10 years) making him forever a “prohibited person” for the purpose of laws related to the possession of regulated firearms. What this means in layman’s terms is that he is now prohibited from possessing most firearms. Moreover, because his conviction is classified as a “crime of violence”, he would face the daunting prospect of a mandatory prison term of 5 years without the possibility of parole if he were ever to be convicted of possession a firearm.

Sure enough, within 6 months of walking out of the courthouse, he violated his probation because he missed a few of his domestic violence counseling sessions because of work conflicts. And true to his reputation, the judge sent him to jail and closed the case. At least once he got out of jail, his nightmare would finally be over – or so he thought. The biggest nightmare was actually years away from ever commencing.

Flash forward to 2013 when my client and his wife go to Continental Arms in Timonium to shoot on their indoor firing range. Prior to be granted access to the range, each person must fill out a form and answer several questions. One of the questions asks whether you have been convicted of a crime that carries more than two years in prison. My client checked no because he had only been sentenced to a 1 year prison sentence and did not realize that the maximum penalty for the offense he had been convicted of, second degree assault, carried 10 years. What he also did not realize was that the Baltimore County Police Firearms Unit routinely subpeonas the records from Continental Arms and other shooting ranges and runs background checks on everyone who filled out one of those forms.

Shortly after his visit there, he received a phone call from a Detective who claimed to be investigating a robbery that had occurred at Continental on the day that he had visited. My client was of course appalled and eagerly answered all of the detective’s questions in the hopes of helping him apprehend this “criminal” who committed this violent offense. I have blogged before about how troubling I find the use of such scorched earth tactics in cases like these. These tactics are usually reserved for the investigation of serious criminals who commit serious crimes. When used on decent people, most of whom have no reason to believe that they have committed a crime, they result in turning people who were demonstrably willing to assist the police into people who distrust police and tell everyone they know that they too should distrust police officers and refuse to cooperate with them. Seems to me to be a bad trade for the police, but I guess they have to build their stats these days and that imperative apparently trumps actually protecting the community by investigating real crime and arresting real criminals.

But I will get off my soap box now and tell you the rest of the story. Based on the information that my client provided, the detective secured a search warrant for my client’s home and early one morning came banging on his door with a dozen police officers in tow. They confiscated half a dozen legally purchased firearms from his gun safe. My client was so stunned by their presence that he even told them that he had several other weapons at his mother’s house which were also confiscated. He was charged under several sections of the criminal code as prohibited person including the section that requires a mandatory five year no parole prison term upon conviction. They even charged his wife as a “straw purchaser” because she had purchased a few of the weapons. At this point my client FINALLY decided that he needed a lawyer.

Needless to say, this legal situation was far more serious than the original assault case that got him into this mess in the first place. I advised him that over the last 20 years I have handled thousands of domestic violence cases such as his original case and that, except in the case of serious bodily injury or a significant prior criminal history, I have never had such a case result in a permanent criminal record. In the overwhelming majority of the cases I have been able to resolve the case by dismissal or other mechanism short of a criminal prosecution, and in the rest, I have been able to secure probation before judgement which allows the case to be expunged from the defendant’s record. I advised him that had he hired me in 2006, he would never have become a prohibited person and would have broken no law when he went to Continental Arms to shoot that day. The case would also have been much cheaper to deal with in terms of legal and court fees than the serious felony charges he now faced.

Luckily for him, the prosecutor who handled this case was a very reasonable professional prosecutor who knows a real criminal when he sees one. To his credit, he did not pursue the mandatory sentence and I was able to secure probation before judgment for the client which means that he will be able to have this matter expunged from his record. But he had to forfeit all of the confiscated weapons which when put together with legal fees and court costs amounted to many multiples of what the fees would have been for the assault case in 2006. On top of it all, he is still (barring a pardon from the governor) permanently prohibited from possessing firearms in Maryland. And it all could have been so easily avoided if he had simply hired an Experienced Criminal Attorney in the first place.

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