Due to a vaguely worded, one-sentence ballot measure that officials say hinders efforts to issue felony-firearms possession charges, Missouri prosecutors and law enforcement are increasingly bypassing state courts and taking gun cases straight to the federal justice system.
So far, the office of U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan has brought charges in roughly 70 gun-related cases that would not have been issued at the state level because of Missouri’s new Amendment 5, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. The 2014 ballot initiative declares gun rights “unalienable,” meaning any attempt to withhold them is subject to the highest possible scrutiny by judges. Critics of the law, which was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court this week, argue that its biggest beneficiaries are criminals — who could have felony weapons charges dismissed.
“Amendment 5 is already causing serious public safety problems,” St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, who filed the suit challenging the law, said after the decision was rendered Monday. “I’m dealing with a state court where a guy can shoot at a cop and get (probation).”
Amendment 5, which passed with the backing of 60 percent of voters, first came to prominence in February, when 55-year-old Raymond Robinson asked Circuit Judge Robert Dierker to dismiss firearms-possession charges. Despite the fact that Robinson already had a felony record for carrying a concealed weapon without a valid permit, Dierker dropped the charges and ruled that Robinson was, under Amendment 5, technically allowed to possess a firearm, since his new, “unalienable” right overrode existing law barring felons from gun ownership.
The ruling, which is limited to Robinson’s case and will not set legal precedent, marked the first of seven attempts at an Amendment 5 defense that succeeded, prosecutors said.
“I knew that offenders from every corner from the state of Missouri were going to attempt to reap the benefit of this change,” Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker told St. Louis Public Radio. “It’s just a shame for a prosecutor to lose this kind of tool.”
Unwilling to risk another offender sprung from court with his gun rights intact, Dotson, whose city has seen an almost 45 percent spike in homicides in 2015, has begun taking cases to the U.S. Attorney in St. Louis. While he’s doing so out of necessity, the approach has had advantages when employed electively elsewhere. Prosecutors in several states, including Iowa, Washington state, and Minnesota, have secured long sentences for firearms offenders in federal court that would have eluded them on the state level.
“If I have a choice, and there is a nexus to a federal crime,” Dotson said, “I’ll take it to federal courts because I have better outcomes.”
[Photo: Flickr user George Thomas]