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You Can Get Years in Prison For Bringing Legal Guns to the Wrong State

Throwing people in jail for not knowing the ins and outs of every state's gun control laws is pretty crazy, but it keeps happening across the US.

A recent traffic stop somewhere in the United States of America. Photo via Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker

Last fall, VICE published a piece by Brian Aitken, a man who had recently moved to New Jersey, where he narrowly escaped seven years in prison for possession of guns that were legal in his previous home of Colorado but banned in the Garden State. Only after an executive order from Governor Chris Christie commuted his sentence was Aitken set free—if being stuck with a lingering felony charge can be called freedom.

Disagree about gun laws all you like, but New Jersey is pretty nuts about theirs. It’s less about Second Amendment specifics, or ideologies (unless yours involves more people crammed into US prisons), and more about making criminals appear out of thin air. It doesn’t sound so terrible when you read that New Jersey doesn’t recognize Pennsylvania concealed carry permits, for example—unless you happen to have someone passing through and unaware of the nuts and bolts of interstate laws. Last October, a Philadelphia mother of two was pulled over for an unsafe lane change. Shaneen Allen, 27, told the officer that she had a handgun and bullets in her vehicle, and then showed the cop her Pennsylvania concealed carry permit. Bad idea. Now Allen, who had been robbed more than once—which was her motivation for buying the gun in the first place, along with protecting her two kids—is charged with unlawful possession of a firearm and faces three years in prison.

Lately, there’s been a great deal of positive push-back against federal drug mandatory minimums, but not much resistance to firearm minimums that punish people for selling drugs and owning a gun—even if it was legal in another jurisdiction, and even if it was never displayed. Guns may be a politically loaded (pardon the God-awful pun) object, but owning one is not the same as committing violence. These kind of laws should be filed away with low-level drug prohibitions as unjust restrictions on consensual activity.

Christie helped Aitken once word of his excessive punishment spread. But the governor also signed a state law which, among other things, upped the mandatory minimum for unlawful gun possession from three years to 42 months. Aitken’s sentence of seven years, it seems, was unreasonable. But 42 months is somehow the perfect punishment for not realizing that laws don’t apply equally in all states. Go ahead and argue that Allen should have known the laws better, but does anyone without a vested interest in the prison-industrial complex seriously believe that a mother should be taken away from her kids for three years for doing something that is perfectly legal in her home state?

Somewhere in an alternative universe, there is a cop who appreciated Allen’s honesty and safety-consciousness so much that they let her go—along with a warning about New Jersey law being completely nuts.

Check out the rest of this week’s bad cops:

-A six year old witnessed a Hometown, Illinois cop shoot her dog on Friday. A neighbor says the dog did not threaten or attack the officer, and that the little girl started screaming when the dog, a shepherd mix who had gotten loose, was shot. The girl’s mother, Nicole Echlin, told an NBC affiliate, “We were in the lawn and the cop already had his gun out. I tried to call [the dog] in the house and he just stood there staring and I guess he showed his teeth and the cop just shot him.”

-Also on Friday, a German Shepard belonging to a DeKalb County, Georgia man was shot by police in its own front yard. Tim Theall let nine-year-old Doctor out into the back yard, but the dog ran around to the front and was almost instantly shot by a surprised DeKalb police officer. Worse still is Theall’s allegation that he was not permitted to take his dog to the vet for a full hour after the shooting. The officer even repeatedly used his patrol car to bar Theall from driving away. At one point, he was threatened with arrest if he tried to rescue the dog. Once backup and a superior officer arrived, Theall was permitted to get help for Doctor, who seems to be doing better.

-On July 24, Reason (where I used to work) published an account of a border crossing by journalist Rogier van Bakel, during which one US Border Patrol agent apparently twisted van Bakel’s arm, then grabbed his iPhone out of his hand when he started filming. Sadly, van Bakel has no proof of this assault or violation of his rights because the Border Patrol reportedly demanded he delete the video before he left.

-Here be more video of the New York Police Department (NYPD) being rough in their arrests, and more evidence that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s directive to be cool on small-time marijuana possession isn’t magically going to happen. On Tuesday, officers arrested 32-year-old Jahmiel Cuffee for possession of weed for the ninth time (quelle horreur!). Cuffee supposedly resisted in an unspecified manner. He was put down on the ground, and a supervising officer showed up to witness the arrest—but then a still-unknown officer can be seen on video walking over to stomp on Cuffee’s head. Cuffee is apparently fine, albeit popping a lot of aspirin for pain. The NYPD confirms he suffered some injuries, but not, they say, of the head.

-Speaking of the NYPD, the Village Voice looked at the Civilian Complaint Review Board’s summary of force allegations against the NYPD between 2009 and 2013, and found that the complaints are basically unhelpful in that only one to two percent of them go anywhere. During those years, there were 11,334 accusations of ill treatment by cops. Most of them were in Brooklyn. The borough with the fewest such complaints was Staten Island, with the notable exception of the 120th Precinct, which employs choke-holding cop Daniel Pantaleo. As Village Voice writer Albert Samaha notes, “Some will see it and conclude that the vast majority of police brutality accusations are made-up….Some will see that two percent as an indictment of the internal investigation process. A product of the Blue Line.” The thing is, without cops being on camera 24/7, we have no definitive proof of either conclusion. And they have the power, so we have to trust that the system is working. (It isn’t.)

-Last Monday, a woman was about to go to trial for resisting arrest and battery on a San Diego County sheriff’s deputy. Now, all charges against Bana Mouwakeh stemming from the October traffic stop have been dropped thanks to the body camera worn by the deputy in question. In his official report, Deputy Rosa claimed Mouwakeh screamed and tore at his vest, but all the video shows is the woman being dragged from her car and put on the ground, and then cuffed. It’s disturbing that Mouwakeh had to spend any time worrying over these charges, and was even pressured to plea bargain to avoid trial, but she refused, and now at least the truth came out through the impartial power of cameras.

-A San Diego DA has a so-called “Brady” list of cops that have a history of lying, or otherwise undermining their credibility on the potential witness stand. Brady v. Maryland (1963) found that the potential unreliability of a police officer must be shared with the defense, if requested. This is the same idea. However, the list is confidential, and state sunshine law requests have been denied, so how many cops are on the list, and for exactly which reasons, remains unknown. It’s good that prosecutors know certain cops are untrustworthy enough to lose them a conviction, but here’s an idea: Why not fire cops who are known liars?

-A fun Bad Cop Blotter quiz: what is most awkward thing about this story of a cop heroically saving three people from a Philadelphia arson fire on Friday? Is it the uncomfortable historical association between the Philly PD and a rowhouse being firebombed? Or is it the fact that the brave cop is one Lt. Jonathan Josey, previously kicked off the force for hitting a woman in the face at the Puerto Rican Day parade? The answer is your choice. Josey did a good thing here, but maybe he should consider being a firefighter instead of a cop. He seems to do well under heat, but behaves horribly during celebrations.

-Fire heroics notwithstanding, let’s pick a Good Cop of the Week who has never been caught on film hitting a woman in the face. On Friday, while some cops were busy shooting dogs, Cedar Park, Texas police Officer Camacho encountered a Great Dane wandering through traffic. Instead of eliminating this threat to commuter safety with his gun, Camacho captured the dog and returned her to her owners. He even posed for a legitimately cute photo with the overgrown pup. See? Dog-friendly cops make good cops.

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