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Articles Posted in Gun Crimes

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courtroom-898931_1280-300x226Federal law enforcement has made fentanyl a major priority, and last week a 26-year old Baltimore County man was sentenced to a decade in prison for possession with intent to distribute the deadly narcotic.  According to the statement of facts in the guilty plea, a Woodlawn man fled from Baltimore County Police after they tried to initiate a traffic stop.  During the pursuit officers allegedly observed the suspect throwing objects out of his car window as he fled.  Eventually police caught up with the suspect and search incident to arrest produced a digital scale and a baggie with 40 grams of fentanyl.  Had law enforcement stopped there the man would likely have been prosecuted in state court, but a search of his home pursuant to a warrant produced far more incriminating evidence.  Police ultimately discovered 3 kilograms of fentanyl and a loaded .380 caliber handgun.  The U.S. Attorney’s Office stated in its press release that this amount of fentanyl would be enough to kill 1.5 million people.  The suspect was also prohibited from possessing firearms based on a previous drug conviction in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County.  He also had an earlier drug possession conviction in Baltimore City and a probation before judgement for driving on a suspended license.

The facts of the case were not especially unique and from what we can see the defendant was not alleged to have been an interstate drug trafficker, but the federal government still elected to prosecute this case.  For the last several years the feds have picked up gun and drug cases arising from Baltimore City, but with the sheer amount of fentanyl plus a gun being involved it is no surprise this Baltimore County case went federal.  Most of the time a defendant would much rather be prosecuted in Maryland state court, as the sentencing guidelines are typically lower and there is parole.  However, under these circumstances the defendant likely would have received a similar sentence in state court, as he would have been subject to three Maryland mandatory sentence provisions.  Anyone who is found to be in possession of more than five grams of fentanyl faces a mandatory 5 years in prison.  Additionally, the possession of a firearm in a drug trafficking crime carries a 5-year minimum prison sentence under state law.  The Woodlawn man may have also been subject to charges for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon/ person with a drug conviction under 5-601.  This offense also carries a 5-year mandatory sentence that cannot be suspended unless the prior offense had been closed for more than 5 years.  Closed means probation and parole must have been completed.

The Blog will continue to follow cases traditionally prosecuted in state court that are picked up by federal law enforcement.  A general rule is that any convicted felon who is arrested with a gun in Baltimore City could face federal prosecution, but now it is clear the feds are branching out to the County and other Maryland jurisdictions.  Based on this press release it is also clear that federal law enforcement agencies are actively pursuing anyone involved in fentanyl distribution.  If you have been charged with a gun or drug crime anywhere in Maryland or Florida call criminal defense lawyer Benjamin Herbst anytime at 410-207-2598.  Benjamin specializes in charges for drug possessiondrug distribution, possession with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon or disqualified person.  He offers free consultations and is available to defend clients from the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland.

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handcuffs-2102488__480-300x169Tens of thousands of people travel along Route 50 from Annapolis to Ocean City each summer, and few complete their journey without seeing a Maryland State Trooper parked in the median, or actively writing a traffic citation on the shoulder.  The state police have a highly visible presence on all major highways and interstates in Maryland, but it is a common misconception that troopers operate exclusively in a highway patrol capacity.  Highway patrol is a major function of the Maryland State Police; nearly 75 percent of all troopers are assigned to the Field Operations Bureau that patrols the state’s highways, but that still leaves a few hundred troopers who are assigned to other divisions of the agency.  The Criminal Investigative Bureau or CIB is another major branch of the MSP, and is responsible for investigating violent crimes and large-scale drug violations that occur across the state.  The CIB works in cooperation with county and local law enforcement from all corners of the state, and in this past week assisted in arresting suspects from Ocean City to Allegany County.

State police troopers from the CIB began last week by arresting a 36-year old mand from Frostburg on charges of second-degree assault and animal cruelty.  The Western Maryland man was released by a district court commissioner on a $2,500 unsecured personal bond, which he will only have to pay if he fails to appear in court.  The next day the Firearms Enforcement Unit of the CIB arrested a 27-year old Baltimore man on gun charges that included possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.  Another day passed and troopers from the CIB arrested a in Baltimore County man for possession of a firearm by a disqualified individual.  The state police used information from the Ocean City Police Department to make this arrest.  Troopers went on the arrest two more individuals on various charges this same day.  The first was arrested on an open arrest warrant in Baltimore City for making a false statement to an officer, and the second suspect was arrested in Cumberland on an arrest warrant for electronic harassment.

While none of these arrests will generate major news headlines on the traditional media outlets, they do serve as a reminder that state police troopers are actively investigating and pursuing suspects across Maryland.  Regular readers of the Blog are already aware that the governor has made state police resources available to fight violent crime and gun crime in Baltimore City, but gun crimes are a major priority for the MSP no matter where they occur.  Maryland has some of the toughest gun laws in the region, and law enforcement officers are not sympathetic to those who are unaware of just how strict the laws are.  State troopers, like all county and local police officers, will arrest any person who is illegally carrying or transporting a firearm without a concealed carry permit.  These permits are extremely difficult to obtain, and out-of-state permits are not valid in Maryland.  Anyone who owns a firearm should be extremely careful about taking their firearm outside of their home, and should regularly keep updated on all the applicable state gun laws.

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pistol-1350484_1280-300x200The Maryland governor has not been shy about his strong desire to do whatever is necessary to curb gun violence in Baltimore City, and he recently called out state lawmakers for dragging their feet on enacting stricter gun legislation.  Since the 2020 legislative session began in January there have been over 100 shootings in Baltimore City, and each incident is a constant reminder that efforts to reverse the alarming crime rate have been largely ineffective.  In response to the violence, three new criminal justice bills were introduced with the unwavering support from the governor himself.  The first bill, entitled The Violent Firearms Offenders Act, was designed to increase punishments for certain firearms offenses, and includes brand new mandatory prison sentences for certain crimes.  The next bill, The Judicial Transparency Act, was introduced as a measure to hold Circuit Court judges accountable for their sentences in certain violent offenses such as robbery, carjacking, sexual assault, kidnapping, arson and first-degree assault by establishing a database for all sentences handed down in theses cases.  The third bill, The Witness Intimidation Prevention Act, was introduced to increase penalties for witness tampering and witness intimidation.  All three of these bills allegedly have received overwhelming support from the Baltimore City residents and Maryland residents alike, but all three appear to be going nowhere in Annapolis.

The governor recently expressed his displeasure with the legislature for not jumping at the opportunity to push these bills toward his desk for a signature, but he should understand that not all bills designed to punish criminals are beneficial.  It is easy for the public to stand behind a bill that increases punishment for gun offenders, but when minimum mandatory sentences are involved the cost can outweigh the benefit.  The Violent Firearms Offenders Act increases the penalty for using a firearm in a crime of violence and adds possession of a firearm as a non-technical probation violation.  Both of these provisions seem reasonable, and are not likely causing the legislature to second guess the bill.  In our opinion the holdup appears to be related to the establishment of new mandatory sentences for theft of a firearm and for transferring a firearm to a prohibited individual.  The bill seeks to add a 2-year mandatory sentence for theft of a firearm and unlawful transfer of a firearm for all defendants, including first-time offenders.  These mandatory sentences will not allow the judge to consider all factors such as the defendant’s background, lack of intent to commit a violent crime and age.  In essence the mandatory penalty groups all defendants and their cases together, which does not promote a just sentence.

The Judicial Transparency Act takes a degree of autonomy away from judges, and flies in the face of separation of powers.  Judges should not have to worry about how their particular sentence would look in a database.  They are entrusted with the responsibility to hand down a just sentence based on the facts of the case and the characteristics of the defendant.  A database, especially one that will become highly political, will undermine the autonomy of the bench and should not be established.  As for the Witness Intimidation Act, we believe this bill will be eventually approved by the General Assembly, though its effectiveness as a deterrent is arguable.  The current witness intimidation laws already provide strict punishments.

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money-943782_960_720-300x225The second of two defendants who committed a 2018 armed robbery in Baltimore City was sentenced last week to 9 years in federal prison.  The 29-year old defendant was originally charged in state court with, but about 7 months after the robbery the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office entered the charges nolle prosequi, which meant they declined to prosecute the case.  While a nolle pros. is usually a cause for celebration, in this case it was the opposite, as the case was dismissed in state court after federal prosecutors decided to take over.

As detailed in guilty plea, in February of 2018 the defendant and another Baltimore City man walked into a restaurant brandishing a firearm and demanded money from the cash register.  In addition to taking cash from the register and the tip jar, the defendants also took personal belongings at gunpoint from patrons at the restaurant.  After the defendants left the restaurant a 911 call to the Baltimore Police was placed and officers arrived on scene shortly thereafter.  One officer was canvassing the area of the robbery, and located two suspects in an alley counting cash up against a brick wall.  The suspects matched the description in the 911 call, and the counting money in an alleyway was certainly another cause for concern.  Both suspects were detained and searched, and police found $272 in cash, a bag of change, two masks, two bandannas, two cell phones that belonged to victims and a receipt from the restaurant.  Police also found a loaded handgun in the vicinity that matched the description a victim gave of the gun used in the robbery.

There was little question that police had detained and arrested the right suspects, and a show-up identification by the victims confirmed what police already knew.  The only questions remaining were who would prosecute the case, and how much time the defendants would receive.  Initially the case began as a Baltimore City District Court case, and a month after the incident the State filed a 25-count indictment in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, which included charges for first and second degree assault, armed robbery, robbery, use of a firearm in a crime of violence and firearm possession by a convicted felon.  The charges regarding firearm use in a violent crime and possession by a convicted felon both carry 5-year mandatory minimum sentences upon conviction.  Either way the defendants were likely going to serve at least 5 years, but ultimately the feds decided they would prosecute the case.

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handgun-231699_640-300x169The Maryland Senate and the House of Delegates recently cross-filled the Violent Firearms Offenders Act, and it is almost certain that a large portion of the bill will become law in October.  The bill aims to toughen penalties for certain firearms offenses that were seen as too lenient in light of escalating gun violence in Baltimore City and across Maryland.  The bill is part of a package of violence prevention initiatives that the governor announced at a press conference last month in Baltimore, which also includes increased penalties for witness intimidation and measures to track the sentencing records of judges in violent offenses.

The Violent Firearms Offenders Act begins by introducing a provision that adds possession or use of a firearm to the list of non-technical probation violations.  Normally a person who is on probation would be charged with a crime for possession or use of a firearm, and thus a rule 4 violation, so the issue would be moot.  But this provision gives the state an easier path to prove a non-technical violation if criminal charges are not filed, dismissed or placed on STET.  If the state shows the defendant possessed a firearm at any point while on probation the defendant could be found in violation and face the full backup time.  The bill also includes a section that reclassifies the crime of using a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence from a misdemeanor to a felony.  Once again, this is usually not a major issue because the underlying charge will undoubtedly be a felony.  On the other hand, it never made sense for an offense with a five-year minimum mandatory penalty like use of a firearm in violent crime to be classified as a misdemeanor, so there is no major argument against the change.  This section also adds a ten-year mandatory penalty for anyone convicted of using a firearm in a crime of violence for a second or subsequent time, which shall run consecutive to the sentence for the underlying crime.  Mandatory minimum sentences may not be suspended, and the defendant is never eligible for parole.

Perhaps the most impactful change in the Violent Offender Firearm Act is the new provision that adds a mandatory minimum jail sentence for the crime of theft of a firearm.  Theft of a firearm is currently part of the general theft laws, and the penalty is dependent on the value of the firearm.  Since most guns have a value of less than $1,500, theft of a firearm is usually treated as a misdemeanor with an 18-month maximum penalty.  If this bill passes, and we believe it will, come October anyone who is convicted of stealing a firearm (including an antique firearm or replica), faces a felony conviction with a 2-year minimum mandatory penalty.  This two-year minimum mandatory penalty is a new sentencing provision in Maryland, and is not applicable to other criminal statutes.  The law does specify that any defendant convicted faces the mandatory two-year sentence, so the issue of whether a defendant is eligible or probation before judgment may have to be addressed at some point.  Currently there is a 30-day minimum mandatory penalty for wear, carry or transportation of a handgun in Maryland, but it can be avoided if the lawyer argues for, and the judge grants PBJ.  The same is true for the 60-day minimum sentence for carrying a loaded handgun.  Lawmakers may choose to exclude theft of a handgun from 6-220, which governs when a judge can grant probation before judgment.  In Maryland a defendant who is sentenced to a mandatory term of incarceration may serve the time on house arrest, though house arrest sentences rarely extend beyond one year.  It will be interesting to see if 2-year house arrests sentences start becoming the norm, as theft of a firearm is not a violent offense and many defendants will be first time offenders.  Judges should hesitate sending a first-time non-violent offender to prison for two years.

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money-941228__340-300x225Over the summer a federal jury convicted two Washington D.C. men of multiple felonies after they were charged with committing two separate armed robberies in Prince George’s County. This week at the United States District Court in Greenbelt one of the men was sentenced to 33 years in prison followed by 5 years of probation on charges including conspiracy to commit commercial robbery, discharging a firearm during a crime of violence, being a felon in possession of a firearm and interstate transport of a stole vehicle. At least two of these counts carry mandatory minimum sentences of up to 10 years in prison. Since parole has been abolished in the federal justice system the 46-year old defendant will likely be behind bars for close to 30 years. He may be eligible for time off his sentence for good behavior, but it is safe to say that he will not be released until his seventies.

The facts that came to light during the week long trial were about as bad as an armed robbery could get without someone actually being murdered. Assistant U.S. Attorneys proved the man and his co-conspirators entered an auto repair shop brandishing handguns and then bound and gagged one employee and shot the other when he resisted. The employee who was shot suffered life-threatening injuries, and is now paralyzed. Just four days later the men robbed a barbershop in Prince George’s County in the same manner, but this time they were caught after a brief chase that ended in Washington D.C. To make matters worse, the defendant was also recorded on jailhouse phone calls attempting to persuade several different acquaintances to go to the barbershop and pressure witnesses not to testify at trial or before the grand jury. These phone calls were played in court, and resulted in a witness tampering conviction that was almost certainly factored into sentencing.

As we discussed in our previous post about this incident the driver of the stolen getaway vehicle used in the barbershop robbery was not a co-defendant in the trial, which could indicate that he was a cooperating witness. The names of cooperating witnesses will eventually be revealed if they are called to testify at trial, though it is typical for the prosecutors to leave this information out of official press releases. Cooperating witnesses are an essential law enforcement tool, and though they can’t be hidden forever, police and prosecutors will still try to protect them to some degree. The exact terms of cooperation agreements are never announced in open court, though the agreements may be used by defense lawyers during cross examination. Cooperation agreements with the federal government typically contain some sort of sealed supplement that is part of the plea agreement, and when the sealed supplement is read in court only the judge, court staff, law enforcement officers and lawyers are permitted in the courtroom.

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handgun-231699_640-300x169Maryland has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, and a large number of these laws are designed to punish people for illegal possession of handguns, rifles and shotguns. There are numerous different provisions in the state code that address gun possession, and there are a few that are somewhat obscure. Most people know that being convicted of a felony prohibits a person from ever possessing a gun, but this is far from the only restriction placed on a former defendant in a criminal case. The public safety code actually lists more of the impactful gun laws in the state than the criminal law code, and thus it can be hard for layperson to even find the Maryland gun laws. Remember that not being aware of the laws will not buy you any sympathy in court, as the classic saying of ignorance of the law is not an excuse comes to mind. If you cannot find the gun laws that may apply to you then reach out to an attorney just to be sure. The following is a brief overview of some of the Maryland gun laws that may apply to normal everyday people.

As of a couple years ago anyone who wants to purchase a handgun in Maryland has to apply for and be granted a license or HQL. The HQL laws do not apply to rifles and shotguns, so you can walk into any sporting goods store or gun shop, fill out a form and leave with a powerful firearm. Clearly, the state legislature as singled out and targeted handguns, but this doesn’t mean the laws are relaxed when it comes to rifles and shotguns. Many people believe that the strict Maryland gun laws only apply to handguns due to the notoriety of the HQL and all that it entails, but this could not be further from the truth. If you are prohibited from possessing a handgun you are undoubtedly also prohibited from possessing a rifle, shotgun or any other type of firearm. This includes muzzle loaders or even antiques that are in a case or mounted on a wall. If it fires a bullet then it’s a firearm. It may be easier to buy a hunting rifle but it definitely is not safer to possess one if you’ve been convicted of a criminal charge.

Without a doubt the most common reason a person would be prohibited from possessing a firearm is if they have been convicted of a disqualifying crime. Under Maryland law a disqualifying crime means any felony and any misdemeanor that carries more than a two-year maximum penalty. If you pled guilty to any offense, no matter how long ago it occurred you should check the exact statute to make sure you can legally possess a gun. Even if you never travel with a gun it is not advisable to have one in your home if you have been convicted of a crime. You never know when a police officer could enter your home, as we have seen cases where police show up on an unrelated matter and find guns. Probation before judgment or PBJ is not considered a conviction for gun possession purposes unless the PBJ was granted in a domestically related second degree assault charge. Anyone who has faced a domestic violence charge should contact a lawyer before deciding to possess a firearm in Maryland. In addition all individuals who have an active peace order or protective order are not allowed to possess any type of firearm until the order expires are is withdrawn by a judge.

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money-943782_960_720-300x225The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland recently announced that a federal jury came back with guilty verdicts for two Washington D.C. men charged with committing armed robberies in Prince George’s County. The verdict came after seven days of trial at the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. According to evidence presented by the government at trial the two men robbed an auto repair business in Clinton, Maryland back in November of 2016, and then just four days later robbed a barbershop close to the D.C. line in Seat Pleasant. During the first robbery the men entered the shop brandishing firearms and ordered the two employees to the ground and stole their money. One employee was bound with zip ties while the other fought back and was shot. The shooting victim was severely injured and according to the government is now paralyzed. After committing the auto repair shop robbery the co-defendants fled in a stolen car and were not captured.

Four days later the same two co-defendants committed another armed robbery in nearby Seat Pleasant, and this time it didn’t end so well for the pair and their unidentified getaway driver. After robbing patrons at a barbershop in a similar manner as the auto repair shop, the co-defendants fled in a stolen minivan. Only this time, police spotted the getaway car at an intersection and attempted to make a stop. The three robbers tried to flee from police and bailed out of the van to attempt to run away on foot, but two were captured almost immediately and other was captured a short time later. Upon searching the stolen van police recovered two loaded 9 mm handguns, one of which had an obliterated serial number.

While one of the defendants was awaiting trial in jail he apparently urged multiple acquaintances to visit the barbershop and dissuade witnesses from testifying. These conversations were recorded and introduced into evidence by the government, which led to a conviction for witness tampering in addition to multiple other convictions including armed robbery, use of a firearm in a crime of violence and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Inmates that are incarcerated pending trial often make the mistake of assuming their jailhouse conversations are private, when in fact the government is always listening. These conversations are admissible in court, and are frequently used to convict defendants in cases where other evidence may be lacking. Defendants and their families should conduct their conversations as if the prosecutor or law enforcement were right there in the room, as there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in jail.

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pistol-1350484_1280-300x200Last week Baltimore joined nine other urban areas in the nation as the newest members of the National Public Safety Partnership. The NPP was created in 2017 to provide federal assistance to areas with sustained levels of violence that are far above the national average. In order to be eligible cities or counties must be in compliance with federal immigration requirements and must demonstrate a commitment to reducing crime. Baltimore was overlooked as a 2017 pilot site, and again in 2018, in favor of other notoriously dangerous cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Oakland, Camden and Newark. But in the program’s third year it became impossible to exclude Baltimore, which has sadly become the nation’s murder capital. The FBI established a recent murder rate for Baltimore of 56 per 100,000 residents, a staggering number considering the next highest is Detroit with 40 per 100,000 residents. Chicago has long been perceived as the U.S. murder capital, but in reality its per capita rate is less than half of Baltimore’s.

Being selected to join the NPP isn’t exactly a cause for celebration, but there is hope that the increased federal funding and involvement will curb the constantly escalating violence in the city. The Maryland governor has routinely voiced his discontent with rising crime in Baltimore and has directed funding and law enforcement officers to the city in order to have gun crimes and other violent offenses prosecuted in federal court under Project Exile. Conviction rates are higher and prison sentences longer in federal court compared to the city’s circuit court. In addition to Project Exile, a violent crime joint operations center with 200 dedicated officers from 16 different agencies is already in the works to put boots on the ground in the city’s most violent areas. Additionally, the state has pledged money to the Baltimore Police Department to increase signing bonuses for new recruits, in response to the department’s high turnover rate.

Though it has only been around since 2017, the NPP has already contributed to the reduction of crime in some of the pilot locations and the hope is that the same can be accomplished here in Maryland. The NPP provides a three-year commitment from the federal government and focuses on core areas of crime fighting. The first is federal partnerships, which basically means general cooperation between the city’s leadership and police department and the DOJ and federal law enforcement. The federal government will provide assistance in crime analysis, technology, gun violence, criminal justice collaboration, community engagement and investigations. The feds will also appoint a strategic liaison to serve as the line of communication between the city and the Justice Department, and conduct an annual training symposium for law enforcement members.

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pistol-1350484_1280-300x200The federal government’s commitment to prosecuting Baltimore City gun crimes was on display again this week, as two men were sentenced to almost ten years in prison for unlawful firearm possession. Both the ATF and the Baltimore Police Department participated in the investigations that ultimately led to the convictions, and sentences were announced by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland. In the first case a 35-year old received a sentence of 100 months in federal prison followed by 3 years of probation for illegal possession of a stolen firearm. According to the plea, law enforcement executed a search warrant of the defendant’s residence and found a stolen semi-automatic handgun on the couch along with marijuana that the defendant planned to sell.   In the plea the defendant agreed that the firearm was possessed in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, and admitted that the he knew the firearm was stolen. The defendant was prohibited from possessing a firearm due to multiple prior felony convictions

Just 3 days later, a second Baltimore man was sentenced by the same federal judge to 9 years in prison for possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance and possession of a firearm in the furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. The jail sentence will be followed by 5 years of probation, or supervised release as it is termed in the federal system. According to the plea agreement police officers observed the defendant participating in a drug transaction and attempted make contact with him, but the defendant fled the scene. After a brief pursuit the defendant was arrested, and a search incident to arrest revealed oxycodone bills and over $400 in cash. Police also recovered a black jacket nearby with a loaded handgun inside the pocket. Law enforcement was able to prove the jacket belonged to the defendant using evidence recovered from a search warrant. This defendant was already prohibited from possessing a handgun due to prior felony convictions for possession with intent to distribute narcotics.

Both defendants could have easily been prosecuted in the Circuit Court in Baltimore, but the feds continue to pound the message that they will not ignore illegal gun possession in the city. Both Maryland law and federal law provide mandatory minimum prison sentences for illegal gun possession, but gun charges carry lengthier prison sentences in the federal system, and defendants are never eligible for parole. The defendants received lengthy sentences in large part due to their status as prior convicted felons, but the fact that drugs were involved with both cases contributed as well. Under Maryland law a person is subject to a 5-year minimum prison sentence without parole for both illegal possession of a firearm and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Illegal possession of a firearm does not necessarily mean that a person must be a convicted felon. Misdemeanor convictions for second degree assault, and any other crime that carries a more than 2-year maximum penalty will disqualify a person from possessing a gun under state law. Additionally, a conviction for a domestically related offense and even a probation before judgment for domestic assault disqualifies a person. Possession of a firearm in the furtherance of a drug trafficking crime also carries a 5-year sentence without parole. The prosecution must establish that the gun and the drugs have some sort of relationship or nexus, but prior case law on this issue is not in favor of defendants.

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