Federal Firearm and Weapon Crimes: The Dangers of Illegal Gun Possession Beyond New York State Firearm Offenses

For years, the New York City Police Department has run the “Cash for Guns Program” in which it will pay $100 to any individual who turns in any handgun, revolver, semiautomatic and automatic pistols, sawed-off shotguns, or assault rifle. The police will not ask any questions about the weapon or ask for any identification, as the identity of every person will remain anonymous.

Over the years, thousands of guns have been taken off the streets of New York City. Even though the program promises anonymity, that does not always happen. Take the case of Robert Lee Miles. Back on January 19, 2011, Miles walked between subway cars and was stopped by police, as that was a violation of New York City law. The police frisked Miles and recovered an unloaded revolver in his waistband. As he was being arrested, Miles told the police that a friend gave him the gun so that Miles could collect money through the Cash for Guns Program and that he was on his way to delivering the gun to the Police Station to collect the $100.

Since Miles previously had been convicted of two violent offenses and a serious drug offense, he was charged in federal court in the Southern District of New York (in Manhattan) with one count of knowing possession of a firearm under Title 18, United States Code, Section 922(g), also know as the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). Typically, a federally convicted “felon-in-possession” of a firearm will receive between 2 and 10 years in prison. However, when the defendant has three or more violent or serious drug offenses, the mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years kicks in.

After he was indicted, Miles attempted to have the indictment dismissed, or in the alternative, have the evidence suppressed (which would logically result in a dismissal) based upon several grounds.

First, Miles sought dismissal because of his “innocent possession” of the weapon. Next, he sought dismissal on the theory of “entrapment by estoppel.” Third, he sought suppression of the weapon because the police illegally stopped and frisked him. Finally, he argued that his 1985 robbery conviction did not qualify as a “violent felony” within the meaning of the ACCA. Since he was only sentenced to one year in prison, he claimed he had technically not been convicted of an offense “punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.” See Title 18, United States Code, Section 924(e)(2)(B).

The District Court Judge considered all of these arguments, and then summarily denied each of the motions. Miles then waived a jury (agreeing to be tried by the Judge alone). The District Court Judge heard evidence and found Miles guilty and sentenced him to the mandatory minimum sentence of 180 months, or 15 years in prison.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit first considered Miles’ “entrapment by estoppel” argument. Miles’ argument was that New York City’s Guns for Money Program actually authorized him to violate the federal law of being a felon in possession of a weapon; and that the federal government should be prevented (or “estopped”) from charging him with a crime. The court noted that such a defense may arise “where a government agent authorizes a defendant ‘to engage in otherwise criminal conduct and the defendant, relying thereon, commits forbidden acts in the mistaken but reasonable, good faith belief that he has in fact been authorized to do so.’” U.S. v. Miles, 13 CR 1158, NYLJ 1202650972620 (2nd Cir. 2014), citing U.S. v. Gil, 297 F3d 93, 107 (2d Cir. 2002) quoting U.S. v. Abcasis, 45 F3d 39, 43 (2d Cir. 1995).

The Court of Appeals acknowledged that it had not previously explicitly held that for this defense to be plausible, that a defendant must show reliance on the advice or authority of a specific federal official. It noted that several other Circuit Courts had so held, and in explicitly stating that rule for the Second Circuit, the court noted that it made sense because state and local officials cannot “bind the federal government to an erroneous interpretation of federal law.” Gil, 297 F.3d at 107.

Next, the Court considered Miles’ “innocent possession” argument. Again, the Court acknowledged that this was the first opportunity for the Court to decide if such a defense was available in the context of Section 922(g)(1). The court ruled that such a defense might be available if the possession was momentary or as long as necessary to deal with a “justifying necessity of some kind”; however, in this case, the defense was not available to Miles because he did not fit this criterion.

The Court quickly disposed of Miles’ claim that his stop by police was unlawful – Miles argued that since the train was not in motion at the time of his passing between cars, he did not violate the law – by noting that the statute did not require the train to be in motion.

Finally, the Court considered and rejected Miles’ claim that since he was actually sentenced to less than one year in prison on his 1985 robbery conviction, it did not qualify as a “violent felony” under the ACCA. The ACCA has two requirements for prior convictions to qualify as a violent felony: 1) that the offense has as an element the use of physical force against another (which was not contested by Miles) See Title 18, United States Code, Section 924(e)(2)(B)(i); and 2) that it be punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.” See Title 18, United States Code, Section 924(e)(2)(B). The Court noted that since he could have been punished pursuant to N.Y. Penal Law Section 70.00 to more than one year in prison, the robbery conviction qualified as a violent felony. The fact that he was actually sentenced to less than one year made no difference.

Therefore, the Court ruled that Miles’ was subject to the mandatory enhanced sentence of 15 years in prison.

So what have we learned? First, if you have a prior felony conviction, don’t possess a handgun – and don’t try to get $100 for it – you may find yourself incarcerated. Second, the state and local government can’t protect you from federal laws. Third, for purposes of the ACCA, it doesn’t matter what your prior sentence actually was – it only matters what it could have been.

To learn more about Federal criminal laws, such as those involving Federal firearms offenses and other weapon crimes, review the Federal criminal law section of Saland Law PC’s website linked above and below. Information regarding New York State weapon crimes is located on the New York State criminal defense section of the website.

Founded by former prosecutors, the Federal criminal defense lawyers at Saland Law PC represent clients accused of violating Federal criminal laws and statutes in the New York and metropolitan area.

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