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Articles Posted in SCOTUS Opinions

As we reported in February, the Supreme Court heard argument on  a drug case that will likely have significant consequences for many facing New York gun charges.  Now, the United States Supreme Court issued a written opinion  in the case.  Specifically, the case required the Court to interpret the provision of the Armed Career Criminals Act (ACCA) imposing mandatory sentences for those who are convicted of a gun offense after having previously been convicted of at least three drug offenses.

The ACCA seeks to impose escalating punishments for the possession of a firearm, based on a defendant’s prior record. For example, if a defendant is convicted of a gun offense, and has three prior “serious drug offenses,” the defendant is subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of at least 15 years. Of course, not every state’s laws are written the same way, and this requires federal courts to determine whether a drug conviction should be considered a “serious drug offense” under the ACCA.

The Facts of the Case

According to the Court’s opinion, the defendant pleaded guilty to a firearm offense and, based on the defendant’s six prior cocaine-related convictions, he received a sentence of 15 years’ incarceration. On appeal, the defendant challenged the lower court’s finding that the six offenses qualified as “serious drug offenses” under the ACCA.

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In what is likely to be a blockbuster case the U.S. Supreme Court recently,  heard arguments in  a case involving New York gun laws. While the parties in this case were not criminally charged for possession of a gun, they prospectively challenged the New York City law banning the transportation of a licensed, locked, and unloaded handgun to a home or shooting range outside city limits. The case is important to New York gun crime law because the U.S. Supreme Court may determine that this specific gun law is unconstitutional.  The case may also define the extent of the rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment and the Firearms Owners Protection Act nationwide.

New York City has two types of gun licenses. The first is known as a concealed carry permit, which allows a permit holder to carry a concealed firearm on their person. The second type of license is an “on-premises” license, which allows a permit holder to “have and possess in his dwelling” a pistol or revolver. An on-premises license is specific to a particular residence, and permit holders cannot freely transport a gun. Instead, a limited number of situations are allowed by statute.

One exception allows the permit holder to transport a handgun directly to and from an authorized range or shooting club if it is unloaded and in a locked container. The ammunition must be carried separately. All approved ranges and shooting clubs are located in New York City. Thus, a permit holder cannot transport a gun to a range outside New York City.

Whether you are a resident of New York state, or are just visiting, you are expected to know and follow all state and federal laws. This is particularly important for criminal laws and gun laws.  But even the courts can sometimes have a hard time deciding which acts are unlawful and what a criminal statute requires. The Supreme Court recently heard oral argument in a case involving the immigration status of a criminal defendant and what the government is required to prove.

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was present in the United States on an F-1 student visa. He was dismissed from the university he was attending in December 2014, and his student visa status was terminated in February 2015. After his status was terminated, he stayed in the United States. Later that year, he went to a shooting range, bought ammunition, and rented a firearm for an hour. He was staying at a hotel, and several days later, an employee told police that he had been acting strangely. The FBI spoke with him, and he admitted to firing a firearm at the shooting range. The police searched his hotel room and also found the rest of the ammunition he had bought. The defendant was charged with two counts under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(5)(A).

Under that statute, it is unlawful for a person “who, being an alien . . . is illegally or unlawfully in the United States … to ship or transport in interstate or foreign commerce, or possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm or ammunition.” 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(5)(A). If found guilty, a person can be sentenced to a fine, and up to ten years imprisonment.

New York has one of the most draconian and burdensome knife laws in the Country and as we have reported over almost a decade in this blog many innocent people have been caught up in New York’s knife law maze.  Last week, however, after several prior attempts at changing the law, Governor Cuomo finally signed a law that will change New York’s knife laws.1142076_knife_1

The Problem

As we wrote as early as 2010, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office made a deal with several retailers in Manhattan, including Home Depot and other major retailers for them to pay a financial penalty and stop selling gravity knives in New York.  The problem was that these knives were being sold by companies who paid only a relatively small financial penalty while citizens, many african-american and latino youths were being arrested and given criminal records for buying these knives which were readily available.  In 2016, we wrote another blog about this problem after the Village Voice wrote an extensive article about it.  According to the Village Voice article, there had been as many as 60,000 arrests for gravity knives in the preceding 10 years which put gravity knives in the top 10 most prosecuted cases.  Village Voice analysis also seemed to indicate that a disproportionate number of African-Americans and Latinos were prosecuted for gravity knives.

Under New York DWI law, merely by driving a car a motorist is presumed to have agreed to take a chemical test when requested by a police officer who suspects that the driver is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This law, called an implied consent statute, is in effect in many states.

Recently, the United States Supreme Court heard the case Mitchell v. Wisconsin that raises a previously undecided issue regarding implied consent laws. Specifically, the case required the Court to determine whether “a statute that authorizes a blood draw from an unconscious motorist provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement?”

The case arose when the defendant was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. Evidently, on the way to the police station, the defendant became lethargic, and the arresting officers took the defendant to the hospital. One of the officers accompanying the defendant read him a form explaining the state’s implied consent law; however, the defendant was so incapacitated that he was unable to indicate to the officers that he understood the warnings. The defendant did not either specifically consent or refuse. However, at the hospital, police officers requested that hospital workers take the defendant’s blood. It was later determined that the defendant’s blood-alcohol content was .222, which was well over the legal limit of .08.

As Second Amendment attorney Peter H. Tilem reported in a blog on April 24, 2016, New York and New Jersey’s outright ban on stun guns and tasers were unconstitutional.  stungunNow today, a Federal District Judge in upstate New York confirmed that opinion and enjoined the New York State Police from enforcing New York Penal Law sec 265.01 (1) as it applies to “Electronic Dart Guns” and “Electronic Stun Guns.”  The case entitled Avitabile v. Beach was decided earlier today by US District Judge David N. Hurd of the United States District Court for the Northern District in New York.  While the case is not necessarily binding in New York City, the case applies the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Caetano v. Massachusetts, which struck down the Massachusetts state ban on stun guns.

The issue actually began with the famous Second Amendment Case of Heller which was decided in 2008.  In knocking out a ban on handguns in Washington DC, the US Supreme Court in Heller ruled that the Second Amendment applied to “bearable” arms.  The Caetano decision, in knocking down a stun gun conviction in Massachusetts, made it very clear that a stun gun was a bearable arm as that term was used in Heller.

Besides being illegal, bans on stun guns and tasers are inherently illogical.  All states permit the possession of handguns to a degree.  Even New Jersey and New York City which effectively ban the possession of handguns outside the home, permit handgun possession in the home, with the appropriate license (in New York).  However, prior to today’s ruling, New York and New Jersey have a complete and total ban on the civilian possession of stun guns and tasers which are non-lethal.  This complete and total ban includes both possession inside the home and outside the home and does not even permit possession with a license.

Recently, the United States Supreme Court issued a written opinion in an interesting case discussing the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Specifically, the case involved the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment and required the Court to determine if the rights contained in the Clause applied to both federal and state proceedings. Ultimately, the Court concluded that when the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, it incorporated the rights contained in the Excessive Fines Clause (as it did with most other rights included in the Bill of Rights).

The Facts of the Case

According to the Court’s opinion, the defendant was arrested on drug and theft charges while he was driving a Land Rover SUV that he had just purchased with the proceeds from an insurance policy after the death of his father. The defendant paid $42,000 for the SUV.

The defendant pled guilty to both charges. While the maximum allowable punishment would have resulted in a jail sentence and a $10,000 fine, the defendant was placed on house arrest and fined approximately $1,000. After the case was over, the government claimed that the SUV was involved in the transport of drugs, and sought civil forfeiture of the vehicle.

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