At least 40 prisoners, and potentially many more, are sitting in federal prison for gun possession in North Carolina, even though the federal law that put them there has since changed, according to an explosive report Thursday from USA Today.
Take Travis Bowman, who was pulled over for speeding in 2007. When a routine background check revealed he had a past affiliation with a criminal gang called Folk Nation, the officer pointed a gun at his head. Bowman took off in his vehicle, and the resulting highway police chase ended with Bowman slamming into four cop cars. “State officials didn’t prosecute Bowman for the shotgun, or for the chase, or for crashing into the police cars, or for refusing to let his girlfriend out of the car. Instead, they turned the case over to the Justice Department, which sent him to prison for a decade just for having an unloaded shotgun on the floor behind the passenger seat,” according to reporter Brad Heath. You can see the 2009 dismissal of Bowman’s appeal here.
North Carolina has a rolling sentencing law, in which people who commit multiple minor felonies receive longer prison terms than people without records for each new minor felonies. Since the federal gun possession law defines felons as anyone who could have been sentenced to a year or more in jail, North Carolinians who in other states would not qualify for harsh federal sentences because of their minor crimes then became subject to major penalties. North Carolina’s laws affecting gun possession charges were overturned by a federal court last year.
The 4th Court of Appeals from August ruled in The United States of America v. Jason Edward Simmons, that this determination of prior crimes was wrong. In the majority decision Judge Diana Gribbon Motz writes, “Such an approach–requiring federal courts to treat even minor state crimes as serious felonies–makes a mockery of North Carolina’s carefully crafted sentencing schematic. … We cannot upend this scheme by lumping all defendants–and virtually all crimes–into the same category for the purposes for federal sentencing.”
In the Simmons case which went before the appeals court, the defendant had previously been convicted of marijuana possession. According to analysis by Families Against Mandatory Minimums, “Under North Carolina law, Simmons’ prior conviction was a ‘Class I’ felony. It carried a potential sentence of more than one year in prison, but only if two conditions were met: (1) certain aggravating factors were present and (2) Simmons had a ‘prior record level’ of at least 5. Neither condition was met in Simmons’s case.”
As soon as the Simmons decision came down, according to Health’s reporting, judges dismissed pending cases and appeals for cases like those of Simmons’s, in which the prior convictions weren’t serious enough to classify a gun possession as a federal crime. But though that helped those pending cases, Heath estimates that dozes of other prisoners are already serving time on these same, but now-bogus, federal gun charges.
Whether Bowman and the other prisoners will be successful in getting out of prison is yet to be determined.
“Hopefully I’ll get the chance to be out there soon,” Bowman wrote in an e-mail to USA Today.”I just want a better life than this. I have to prove to a lot of people that I’m not the old me. I want to be a person my kids will look up to and be proud of.”
Kay Steiger is the managing editor of Raw Story. Her contributions have appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Campus Progress, The Guardian, In These Times, Jezebel, Religion Dispatches, RH Reality Check, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @kaysteiger.
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