In a stunning outbreak of sanity in the Garden State, Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain has reversed his earlier decision to seek prison time for Shaneen Allen, a single mother from Philadelphia who was facing felony prosecution for misunderstanding concealed carry reciprocity rules. The decision came after John Hoffman, acting New Jersey Attorney General, issued statewide guidance to county prosecutors clarifying the application of New Jersey’s mandatory sentencing scheme to certain minor firearm violations. These developments mean that not only will Ms. Allen and her children be spared the ordeal of her facing a felony conviction and lengthy prison term but that other travelers who unwittingly violate New Jersey’s harsh laws gun laws may also avoid a similar nightmare.
Shaneen Allen’s case shocked the conscience of a broad range of Americans, particularly given the disparate treatment McClain’s office recently provided to professional football player Ray Rice. Rice was caught on video knocking unconscious his then- fiancée with a punch, but McClain still approved him for New Jersey’s Pretrial Intervention Program (PTI), which allows first time offenders to avoid criminal conviction after a period of supervised rehabilitative efforts. Meanwhile, McClain had initially refused to show Allen the same leniency, instead offering her a plea that would have required her to complete at least 3 ½ years of a possible 10-year prison sentence without chance of parole. Even certain media figures not known as stalwart Second Amendment supporters -- including CNN’s Anderson Cooper -- recoiled at the injustice.
McClain has now reversed his decision on Ms. Allen’s participation in PTI, stating, “In applying the factors set out in the [attorney general’s] clarification, I determined that the defendant in this case should be offered the opportunity to be admitted into the Atlantic County PTI Program."
Indeed, the “mitigating” factors the attorney general’s memorandum counsels prosecutors to consider closely parallel the circumstances of Ms. Allen’s case. First, she lawfully owned the firearm and would have been lawfully able to carry it in her state of residence. Once in New Jersey, the firearm apparently never left her vehicle. She was otherwise law-abiding, and police only discovered the gun because of a routine traffic stop. Ms. Allen volunteered the presence of the firearm even before being asked about it, and police immediately took it into custody. Finally, Ms. Allen was honestly unaware that her Pennsylvania concealed carry permit did not apply in New Jersey. Given the number of out-of-state tourists who come to New Jersey for its beaches, amusement parks, and casinos -- and given that most other American states recognize and respect the Second Amendment -- violations of this sort are to be expected. As the attorney general recognized in his memorandum: “[I]n most of these cases, imprisonment is neither necessary nor appropriate to serve the interests of justice and protect public safety.”
While we certainly welcome these developments, the enduring lessons of Shaneen Allen’s case (and the anguish and upheaval it has already caused her and her family) should not be forgotten. Even under the new guidance -- which is merely advice on the law, not binding law itself -- the simple act of carrying a firearm for purposes of self-defense is still presumptively criminal and still presumptively leads to mandatory imprisonment. Those lucky enough to be shown leniency in the disposition of their cases also still face arrest and search, an interruption of their journeys and normal lives, potentially lengthy periods of detention, the forfeiture of their lawfully-possessed firearms, fines, legal fees, stigma, and stress. Ms. Allen herself lost her employment and her residence and will face a lengthy period of rebuilding her life. And all this for an activity -- carrying a firearm in case of confrontation.
True legal reform is still needed, including enactment of “Shaneen’s Law” in New Jersey and the Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2013 now pending in Congress. In the meantime, Ms. Allen joins such pivotal and largely unsung civil rights heroes as Otis McDonald and Mary Shepard, whose personal struggles achieved greater recognition of the Second Amendment for their fellow citizens. As Ms. Allen’s attorney Evan Nappen noted, these victories were not achieved in isolation but with the aid of untold numbers of Second Amendment supporters who ensured that these struggles did not go unnoticed. “Every NRA member should be proud,” Nappen said.