Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Delaware court examines whether, after marijuana possession decriminalized, felony charges are proper for possessing gun with marijuana

This local article from the First State, headlined "Marijuana decriminalized but still triggers gun felony," spotlights an interesting case and this lower court ruling concerning the intersection of marijuana reform and guns laws.  Here are the details:

Delaware judge is putting lawmakers on notice that they may want to take another look at a law that still makes it illegal for someone to have a handgun while carrying a decriminalized amount of marijuana.

In a recent ruling, Superior Court Judge Paul R. Wallace pointed out that the legislature may not have realized it left on the books a law that bars Delawareans from simultaneously possessing a handgun and any amount of marijuana, even though less than an ounce of marijuana was decriminalized in Delaware in 2015....

The legal conundrum arose in February 2016 when the Wilmington police's drug unit went to an apartment in the unit block of 31st Street to arrest 21-year-old Imeir Murray's mother who was wanted on a probation violation.... Police smelled burnt marijuana and saw a marijuana grinder, an ashtray and a blunt in plain sight in Murray's bedroom, the warrant said. Officers also found a loaded Walther PK380 handgun on an upper shelf of the closet....

Authorities initially believed the marijuana was slightly more than an ounce, but later learned through laboratory testing that it was only 0.798 ounces, or 22.63 grams, which is a civil violation punishable by a $100 fine that can be paid like a traffic ticket, according to Wallace's opinion. At the police station, Murray and the woman in the bedroom admitted to possessing marijuana, but said the handgun was not theirs. Murray told police he had found the gun in his closet a few days earlier and had asked everyone in the apartment if it belonged to them, but no one took ownership, the warrant said.

Murray was arrested and charged in a grand jury indictment with possession of marijuana, a misdemeanor, and possession of a firearm by a person prohibited, a felony. He was legally allowed to own a firearm, except for a state law enacted in 2011 that says one cannot have a semi-automatic firearm or handgun while possessing a controlled substance.

"It is undisputed that the amount of marijuana found in Murray's room exposes him to, at most, a civil marijuana possession violation," Wallace wrote in his April 13 opinion. "It is disputed what legal effect that fact has on the two charges for which Murray was indicted and faces trial in this Court."

Murray's attorney, Matthew Buckworth, argued that the firearm charge should be dismissed because the firearm statute wasn't intended to apply to someone possessing under an ounce of marijuana for personal use. "It is not fair for someone to have the potential to be felonized for an offense that would otherwise be OK," Buckworth said. "It was never the intent of the legislature to criminalize that behavior."

Wallace disagreed with Buckworth, saying he must apply the law as it currently reads. "Sure, it's conceivable that if it ever did, the legislature might choose to eliminate non-criminal marijuana possession as an element of that compound weapons crime," Wallace wrote. "But, the legislature has not done so. And, this court cannot do so in its stead."...

Murray's case went to trial in January, and he was found not guilty of the firearm charge, after his attorney argued the firearm in the closet did not belong to Murray. The judge found him liable for a $100 civil violation for the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. Even though he was found not guilty of the firearm charge, Wallace decided to still write a court opinion after the fact in April. That signaled to lawmakers a need to take a second look....

Buckworth said he is hopeful the legislature will make changes to the firearm charge since they likely never imagined a scenario would arise like it did for Murray. "I think changing the law is so important because he's a very good kid," Buckworth said. "He has a full-time job, and this could have really messed him up. That doesn't seem like the intent of the legislation."

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/marijuana_law/2017/04/delaware-court-examines-whether-after-marijuana-possession-decriminalized-felony-charges-are-proper-.html

Criminal justice developments and reforms, State court rulings | Permalink

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